World is losing ‘magical’ tradition of human-animal mutualism, study warns

By Ryan Truscott, Republished under Creative Commons from Mongabay

  • Honey gatherers working with birds to find wild bees’ nests; fishers working with dolphins to trap fish — these are examples of what’s known as mutualism, a practice that’s fast dying out, a new study warns.
  • This human-wildlife cooperation was once much more widespread, but is being lost as younger generations in the often Indigenous communities that have long practiced it now eschew it for formal education and farming.
  • In losing these age-old practices, conservationists say, we may be losing more than just the material benefits, “but in fact important aspects of the reverence and deep connection with nature.”

Gcina Dlamini blows through a whistle fashioned from a piece of dried fruit in the forest near his home in the town of Lavumisa in Eswatini. The whistle is called ingongolo in siSwati, and Dlamini is using it to summon the inhlava bird, or greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), so they can hunt for honey together.

“We enjoy honey hunting — just going in the forest and following the honeyguide, eating a little and leaving the rest,” Dlamini tells Mongabay.

He says there are only four honey hunters left in his hometown on Eswatini’s southern border with South Africa.

“Some of the grandfathers are alive. They know something about these [honey-hunting] cultures, but they stay in their houses,” he says.

“It is something that is perishing.”

Dlamini, 26, learned this skill as a boy from his older brothers. On weekends and public holidays, he still hunts in the forest near Lavumisa, often taking one of his younger relatives along.

Gcina Dlamini and his nephew honey hunting outside Lavumisa, Eswatini.
Gcina Dlamini and his nephew honey hunting outside Lavumisa, Eswatini. Image courtesy of Jessica van der Wal.

Human-animal cooperation once more common

Interactions like Dlamini’s with the honeyguides — and similar cooperation between humans and wild dolphins in Brazil and in Myanmar to find fish — are at risk of dying out in the few places where they still persist, a team of international scientists warns.

“There’s a realistic chance of loss of this unique part of our relationship with the natural world,” says Dominic Cram, a University of Cambridge zoologist and co-author of a new study on safeguarding human-animal cooperation published in the journal Conservation Letters.

Scientists like Cram use the term mutualism to describe any interaction between two different species that benefits both. Mutualism between humans and wild animals was once much more widespread.

Orcas (Orcinus orca) helped whalers locate and hunt for whales off the coasts of Russia and Australia. It’s also suspected that wolves cooperated with Indigenous communities in North America to hunt for bison and other game.

In the 19th century, orcas helped shore-based whalers trap humpbacks and other whale species in Twofold Bay in New South Wales, Australia. The whalers would reward the orcas with the tongues of the whales. Many of the crew of the small whaling boats were Indigenous people, who said their ancestors had long cooperated with orca pods to catch other species here, and regarded the marine mammals as reincarnated elders.

Shore-based whaling in New South Wales petered out in the 1920s as whale numbers plummeted. The killing of two members of the cooperating orca pod may also have prompted the group to migrate to safer, more productive foraging grounds.

an orca swimming alongside a whaling boat
Still from a documentary film showing an orca swimming alongside a whaling boat, helping the whalers harpoon whales in Eden, New South Wales, Australia. A whale calf can be seen between the orca and the boat. Image by Charles Eden Wellings via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

In Africa, honey hunters like Dlamini share beeswax and larvae with the honeyguides that have led them to wild nests. The birds’ main diet consists of insects, and they sometimes eat from honeycombs that have been broken open by other animals such as honey badgers (Mellivora capensis). But honeyguides’ best bet for this nutrient-rich food source is cooperation with humans, who not only open the nests but also subdue the bees with smoke. Hussein Isack, a leading Kenyan honeyguide researcher and co-author of the study, has suggested that 96% of bees’ nests would be inaccessible to the birds without human help.

Inexperienced honey hunters can, however, disrupt the partnership by leaving beeswax containing only honey for the birds.

“When you find it angry, it means someone gave it honey,” says Dlamini, who is also a co-author of the Conservation Letters study. When he rewards cooperating honeyguides, Dlamini is always careful to leave them honeycombs that also contain bee larvae.

Regardless of what is intentionally left behind as a reward, the honeyguides will likely gain access to enough wax as payment for their efforts, notes Jessica van der Wal, the study’s lead author.

In fact, experienced honey hunters — like those among the Awer community of Kenya’s northern Lamu county, or the Hadza near Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi — are known to deprive the birds of beeswax to ensure they stay hungry and lead them to more nests.

But, she agrees, “a dilution in expertise can definitely affect the partner quality of humans to honeyguides, which might affect their willingness to guide.”

Van der Wal carried out fieldwork in May in Eswatini where forestry and sugarcane plantations have replaced natural woodland in many areas. Bees there have taken up residence in timber plantations, meaning there’s no shortage of their nests for honeyguides to lead people to.

“The biggest perceived threat by the people we interviewed in Eswatini was the loss of knowledge and interest by the youth,” Van der Wal says.

“They were highlighting the cultural change more than the ecological change.”

A similar waning of interest by younger generations has been seen elsewhere. Research published earlier this year by Van der Wal and colleagues recorded just a handful of Awer honey hunters still active in four villages surveyed. Hunters they interviewed cited a younger generation busy with formal education or agriculture as contributing to the decline.

A greater honeyguide
A greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator). In Africa, through mutualism, honey hunters like Dlamini share beeswax and larvae with the honeyguides that have led them to wild nests. Image by Peter Steward via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Indigenous people keep mutualism alive

But Claire Spottiswoode, a co-author of the study and an expert on the honeyguides’ parasitic breeding habits, says there are still a few places where this mutualism is thriving.

One such place is Mozambique’s Niassa Special Reserve, a vast, forested landscape in the north of the country. There, honey hunting is an integral part of the culture and livelihood of the Yao community.

“In that environment, it’s very much a part of everyday life. Honey is an important source of calories and an important resource when times are hard,” Spottiswoode says.

“It’s possible to be guided by a honeyguide many times a day if you care to make the effort to go and try.”

The reserve’s remoteness helps. Alternative sources of honey, sugar and food aren’t as readily available as they would be in areas close to towns.

Some 60,000 people live within Niassa’s 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres).

“The reason why human-honeyguide cooperation is able to thrive there is because humans and the natural world have been allowed to coexist,” Spottiswoode says.

“In some of the large protected areas in Africa where humans are excluded, we’ve lost the cultural richness on both sides of the relationship.”

Honey hunters have a checkered reputation among some conservationists: they’re accused of felling trees to get at bees’ nests, or letting bushfires flare out of control after lighting them to subdue bees with smoke.

While fires are sometimes lit, data that Spottiswoode and her colleagues have collected in Niassa suggest the practice is a relatively small contributor to wildfires.

And some of these fires may be beneficial.

Most honey hunting takes place after rains, when the fuel load is light, and fires could complement formal fire-management efforts in what is essentially a fire-engineered savanna ecosystem.

Data gathered among the Yao, and other honey-hunting communities like the Hadza, also known as the Hadzabe, show that enlisting the support of honeyguides can increase the chances of finding bees’ nests fivefold.

A number of other wax-eating animals, from honey badgers to non-cooperating lesser honeyguides (Indicator minor) and African civets (Civettictis civetta) also benefit from harvested bees’ nests, though it’s unclear what, if any, impact the hunters in Niassa have on bee ecology.

Spottiswoode says it’s something they’ve only begun to look at. While small areas close to villages might become depleted, overharvesting is unlikely to be an issue over an area the size of Niassa.

“It’s important to remember that African honeybees often move around extensively between seasons, so their ecology is already dynamic,” she adds.

Van der Wal, who has also worked in Niassa collecting data and interviewing honey hunters, says that each time she’s with them she marvels at their interaction with honeyguides. She describes it as both “magical” and “natural.”

But it’s also a rare instance of human-wildlife cooperation on a continent so often in the news for human-wildlife conflict, where wild animals are killed for harming people or destroying their crops.

“Highlighting the benefits for both parties, and using it as a positive example of human-wildlife interaction is, I think, what excites me most,” she says.

Honeyguide perched on a Yao honey-hunter's finger; to the right, a diagram showing accuracy of directions by honeyguides. Image and data courtesy Claire Spottiswood.
A Yao honey-hunter and a wild honeyguide just released from a researcher’s net. The diagram on the right shows the accuracy of guiding behavior by honeyguides in 58 observed encounters: the points represent the difference between the bird’s original guiding direction and where the bees’ nest was ultimately found. Image and diagram courtesy Claire Spottiswoode.

Benefits for all parties

Cram, the University of Cambridge zoologist, says the more people understand how remarkable mutualism is, the greater will be the motivation and desire to protect it wherever it survives.

“These are really unique, uplifting interactions that humans have with the natural world. Stories like that don’t come along very often.”

Van der Wal says she and her colleagues are building up a network of African researchers to document, understand and safeguard honey hunting with the assistance of participating human communities.

Anecdotal information suggests there could be undocumented cases of mutualism between humans and other species of honeyguide, such as the dwarf honeyguide (Indicator pumilio) in East Africa.

“The key is first to understand them [human-honeyguide mutualisms] and involve the actual communities and practitioners themselves into any decision-making and brainstorming,” she says.

Philippa Brakes, a research fellow with U.K.-based NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who was not part of the study, says it’s refreshing to read the paper’s review of the positive ways in which humans and wildlife can form cooperative, mutually beneficial cultural relationships.

They highlight the value of Indigenous knowledge, and demonstrate the need to provide space for human-wildlife cooperation to continue to emerge, Brakes tells Mongabay.

“It is worth considering how our forebears’ lives may have been shaped by similar cooperative interactions with wildlife and that what is lost may be more than just the material benefits, but in fact important aspects of the reverence and deep connection with nature.”

Meanwhile, Dlamini, the Eswatini honey hunter, tells Mongabay he will continue cooperating with the greater honeyguide and teaching the skill to youngsters in Lavumisa.

“We enjoy this thing,” he says. “I don’t think I will stop.”

Gcina Dlamini gathers honey with his nephew
Gcina Dlamini gathers honey with his nephew outside Lavumisa, Eswatini. Image courtesy of Jessica van der Wal.