Hunting for honey and tigers in the Sundarbans

Posted on April 21, 2012


Fun fact about Bangladesh #1: Statistically, there is one human death every three days that is attributed to an attack by the infamous Royal Bengal Tiger. All of these incidents take place in the southwestern corner of Bangladesh, a steamy, mangrove jungle known to the locals as the Sundarbans. Apparently the Bengal tiger has a taste for Bengali flesh.

Fun fact about Bangladesh #2: although it is one of the most overcrowded nations in the world, 10,000 square kilometres of Bangladesh’s precious little land is preserved and uninhabited as the world’s largest continuous mangrove forest – the Sundarbans.

Armed with both of these facts, I had been wanting to visit the Sundarbans for some time. Shundor, meaning beautiful in Bangla, and ban, meaning forest, it is at the very top of the must-see list in Bangladesh.

My first night in the Sundarbans began in Shamnagor, a village near the border with India from where we’d heard you could hire cheap fishing boats for trips into the forest. I didn’t sleep – the steamy heat left me glued to sticky bedsheets, a swarm of mosquitos buzzed above me louder than a jet engine and I was distracted by watching glow worms do kamikaze dives into the barely spinning fan above my bed.

The next morning, we jumped onto a tiny fishing boat that would take us to see the beautiful mangroves and some of the fishing villages on the outskirts. While there are no permanent human settlements in the Reserved Forest of the Sundarbans, the edges are dotted with villages that are home to the five million people who use the forest to support their livelihoods. Of these, honey collecting is one of the most significant and dangerous.

The risk of being attacked by a tiger while collecting wild honey is so great that the collectors, or mawalis, make up the greatest proportion of the 100-200 people killed by Bengal tigers annually. Since honey collection only happens in April and May, the odds of being killed while collecting honey are very high. For the rest of the year, most honey collectors earn their income through fishing. Just one day after we left Shamnagor, there were news reports of a fisherman who’d been killed by a tiger after he strayed too close to shore.

My friend and I were on a mission to taste some of the famous Sundarbans honey we’d heard so much about. A local man led us to a small street-side stall in Shamnagor to view rows of pre-loved Coke and Sprite bottles filled with the amber liquid. We asked to have a small taste and were passed two shot glasses brimming with honey. Yes, we were expected to down them all in one go.

The Sundarbans honey was surprisingly runny and seemed to have a mildly alcoholic taste. We stocked up on a few bottles to give to friends and after spending 500 taka ($AU6) on 2kg of honey, felt decidedly squeamish about the small price we were paying to taste the world’s most dangerous honey.

Not too far from Shamnagor and the mangroves is the region’s capital, Khulna, a beautiful city skirted by lush green jungle and clear blue skies. It has the energy and bustle of a Bangladeshi city without the pollution and overwhelming crowds. After Shamnagor, we spent a few nights in Khulna from where we ventured on a day-trip to Bagherat, a UNESCO World Heritage listed area scattered with the ruins of mosques built in the 15th century.

A particular highlight was the Sait Gumbad Mosque, with 81 domes on its roof. Another favourite was the quirky Khan Jahan mausoleum which is fronted by a large river that allegedly has crocodiles in it. We didn’t see any crocs, but there were plenty of mughi-wallahs who were determined to sell us their half-dead chickens to ‘feed’ to the crocodiles in the lake. Looking at the upside-down chickens being swung by their feet, we politely refused. After avoiding tigers in the Sundarbans, it seemed best not to test our luck with crocodiles.