Written jointly with Anuran Sadhu and Vishal U
On a hot summer day three months ago, Ronjit accompanied by brother Rajat Mandal travelled deep into the jungles of Sunderbans in West Bengal to gather honey, something they often did as professional honey gatherers. Suddenly, a tiger jumped out of nowhere on Ronjit tearing him apart. Rajat and others in the team tried to use a bamboo stick to frighten the tiger, but it swiftly carried away the body as they helplessly tried to save him. Recalls Ranjit tearfully: “He has a wife and two children.” recalls Rajat tearfully.
Every year, over 100 people are mauled to death by tigers in India. West Bengal accounts for the highest number of tiger attacks in the country with around 40 people being killed in 2020, according to official figures. However, these figures do not reflect the extent of human-wildlife conflict in the Sunderbans as actual numbers could be much higher.
Though around 3,000 people are licenced to enter the forests to collect honey, thousands get in illegally as there are no other means of livelihood. They risk their lives to keep the kitchen fires burning.
For generations, poor fishermen and villagers of Sundarbans, the largest delta and mangrove forest in the world, have been collecting wild honey.
The delta comprises 102 islands in West Bengal, 54 of which are inhabited by humans. The majestic Royal Bengal Tigers dominate the rest. Every year, thousands of people enter the forest to collect honey – few legally and many illegally – and get attacked by tigers and crocodiles.
Tigers know no geographical boundaries. “There is always a huge threat of tigers swimming across the river and entering the villages,” said Rajat, who is from Gosaba village in South 24 Paraganas district. “I really hope the next generation benefits from education and is not forced to do this for a living,” he sighs.
It is not just the human-wildlife conflict due to tigers, snakes and crocodiles that haunt the honey hunters. Biting poverty due to lack of opportunities, frequent cyclones and poor disbursement of ration, add to the misery. Barun Mondal, a villager from Gosaba rues about how hopes are raised during elections and then conveniently forgotten. We are treated like animals,” he says angrily.
Rajat says that he is a honey gatherer not out of choice but risks his life as there are no jobs available.
Ananda Banerjee, a winner of the Ramnath Goenka Award in Journalism and a passionate environmentalist, told INK, “Humans have both positive and negative interactions with many animals and not just tigers, so as such there isn't any specific solution to this human-wildlife conflict. The best bet is to be cautious while carrying out honey gathering. Another important thing is that tigers are not used to humans, nor are they their natural prey. Since the prey in Sundarbans is very limited and due to the swampy nature of the forest, tigers find it difficult to hunt. This is why they decide to target anything that moves, be it a human, a wild pig, or a monkey. This is how their ecosystem works. For tigers humans are easy prey and show no hesitation to prey on them.”
Most of the increasing human-wildlife conflict in India can be considerably reduced if there is a planned strategy and understanding of animal behaviour and local circumstances.