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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Sweet thrills of Bangladesh jungle

By Alastair Lawson
BBC correspondent in Dhaka

honeyhunter walks through jungle
The hunters' job is lucrative but risky (Photo taken by Polly Jones)
The honey hunting season has begun in the jungles of Bangladesh, and it's one of the most high-risk jobs in the country.

Every year between now and the end of May about 300 honey hunters - or Mowalis - venture into thick forestry to collect wild honey made by some of the largest and most aggressive bees in the world.

It's a task fraught with danger - and the bees are not the main threat.

Every year 15-20 honey hunters are attacked and killed by tigers.

The hazards of the job were fully brought home to me when I learnt that one of the hunters who we were filming for BBC TV had been attacked and killed by a tiger the day after we left.

But it's also a lucrative activity, because the honey they collect is delicious and earns the Mowalis the same amount in eight weeks as they would collect in six months working on the land.

Hungry tigers

Honey hunting in Bangladesh is done in the Sundarbans in the south-west of the country, reputedly the world's largest mangrove forest.

This wilderness area in one of the world's most densely populated countries has a wide and varied eco-system.

It's home to a vast array of flora, fauna, insects and wildlife, including the world's largest tiger, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Their footprints can be seen everywhere.

Royal Bengal Tiger
Tigers are a constant threat
So high are the risks faced by honey hunters that a special Muslim prayer ceremony - attended by a government dignitary - is held for them before they venture into the jungle.

In most villages that adjoin the Sundarbans it's possible to meet so-called "tiger widows", who have lost their husbands to tigers while they have been collecting honey.

It's not known why there are so many man-eating tigers in the Sundarbans - one theory is that the high salinity in the water there makes the animals become more aggressive.

It's argued that the reason why there are more man-eaters in the far south-west of the forest is because there is more salt in the water there.

The further east you travel in the forest, so the theory goes, the more fresh water can be found and the less likely you are to come across a bellicose tiger.

Cheated bees

Our trip happened to be in the far south-west, close to the border with the Indian part of the Sundarbans.

This is a job which we and our ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years and we are well aware of the dangers
Mohammed Dali
honey hunter
We accompanied the honey hunters by boat to a remote part of the jungle and then followed them into the dense jungle in search of honey cones.

Once one is spotted, the honey hunters use the thick vegetation to prepare a smoke-emitting torch which irritates the bees and makes them fly away.

But only for a short time - many realise they're under attack and will repeatedly sting any invaders who aren't holding a smoke-emitting torch.

The honey hunters ignore the stings to collect the cone and wax in a large basket, taking care to leave part of the cone so that the bees can return and rebuild it.

'We know there's a risk'

On a good day the hunters can find seven to eight cones. But it's hard work.

close up man cutting cone
The bees are smoked away and the honey cone taken (Photo taken by Polly Jones)
Often they are knee deep in mud, and have to cross numerous rivers, creeks and streams while simultaneously remaining aware of the ever-present tiger menace.

One tactic used in the Sundarbans to fend off tigers is for a mask depicting a human face to be tied behind people's heads.

Tigers like to attack humans from the rear and are less likely to do so if they think that their prey is facing them.

"We know there is always a risk that we won't come home," says 50-year-old Mohammed Dali. "But this is a job which we and our ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years and we are well aware of the dangers.

"In the West I have heard that there's a high death rate among pilots who spray fertiliser on crops using single-engine aircraft.

"I suppose our job is like theirs - dangerous but very exciting."

Pledge to save the Sundarbans
12 May 02  |  South Asia
Tigers kill 22 in Bangladesh
03 Apr 02  |  South Asia
New hope for Bengal tigers
17 Dec 01  |  South Asia

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