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‘GPS’ bird points to the sweet spot: Q&A with honey hunter Eliupendo Laltaika

Eliupendo Laltaika interviewing a member of the Sonjo community.

Eliupendo Laltaika interviewing a Sonjo honey-hunter, Sep 2020. Image courtesy Amana Kilawi.

  • In northern Tanzania, a handful of communities still practice the long-running tradition of honey hunting: calling out to a honeyguide bird, and following it to a wild beehive.
  • It’s “an amazing interaction,” says Eliupendo Laltaika, a former honey hunter who’s now the director of the Ngorongoro Biodiversity Conservation Project.
  • But Laltaika warns the practice is dying out — his own Maasai people, he says, have large-ly abandoned it in favor of farmed honey and sugar — and younger generations are mostly unaware of it.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Laltaika talks about how different communities practice honey hunting, what social changes have meant for the tradition, and why it’s worth saving.

Eliupendo Laltaika spent much of his childhood in the village of Nainokanoka, in the northern part of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, herding cattle with his older brother.

Sometimes they would enlist the services of the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), a bird that would lead them to honey-filled bees’ nests. Cooperating with honeyguides in this way is an increasingly rare example of human-wildlife cooperation that persists among a dwindling number of communities in East, Central and Southern Africa.

Now a qualified conservation biologist and director of the Ngorongoro Biodiversity Conservation Project, the 33-year-old Laltaika is studying human-honeyguide mutualism. He sees a decline in honey hunting by his Maasai community, as people turn to refined sugar or domesticated bees, and as trees favored by wild bees are cut down in areas near settlements. Wild bees and honeyguides are now harder to find outside of protected areas.

A male greater honeyguide
A male greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator). Some communities in East, Central and Southern Africa enlist the services of the bird to find honey-filled bees’ nests. Image by Peter Steward via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Laltaika says he’s determined to preserve this cooperation between people and wild animals in a region that is undergoing social and environmental changes that might extinguish the relationship.

He spoke to Mongabay from his base in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mongabay: How old were you when you first learned the skill of honey hunting, and who did you learn it from?

Eliupendo Laltaika: I was 9 years old. Mostly we followed our brothers when we herded cattle. That’s when I learned about honey hunting. My older brother needed honey for us to eat while we were looking after cattle in the forest or on the savanna.

Whenever we felt hungry or needed something to eat, my brother would produce some sounds that would attract the honeyguide. The honeyguide would come and we’d follow it until we got to a bees’ nest and my brother would collect honey. Some of it we’d eat, and the rest we’d take home.

Mongabay: How exactly did you summon the bird, and how did you reward it?

Eliupendo Laltaika: We don’t use a musical instrument to call it — we just use some words. The calls that the honey hunters, especially the Maasai, use are the same as the ones that my brother used. It’s like a song to attract the honeyguide. [Editor’s note: In Laltaika’s master’s thesis, he describes the song as “trill+grunt+words.”]

Once my brother had attracted the honeyguide and the bird had arrived, we would follow it. The bird is the one that controls the attention of the honey hunters. For example, if we stopped following him, he would come back and lead us again.

It would take between 30 minutes and one hour to arrive at a bees’ nest. After my brother had collected the honey he would just take a piece of the honeycomb and put it somewhere for the honeyguide to come and eat.

Mongabay: Within your own community, the Maasai, is honey hunting with the honeyguide something that has been done for a long time?

Eliupendo Laltaika: Previous generations used honeyguides a lot, especially as there was no skill or knowledge of beekeeping. It’s really challenging to find a bees’ nest [without the honeyguide]. You would have to move all around the forest or the savanna looking for honey. But if you use the bird, it’s much easier for you. It’s like a GPS — it can give you directions to where there’s a bees’ nest.

I can’t tell you how long honey hunting has been practiced, but when we look at the history of honey hunting, and the history of the cultural groups living in Ngorongoro, I can tell you that they have practiced it for centuries now. The [Maasai] community has now started changing because of the government providing them with beehives.

The Ngorongoro landscape.
The Ngorongoro landscape. Image by René Mayorga via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: Is honey hunting with the honeyguide still practiced the way you remember it as a child?

Eliupendo Laltaika: Actually, things have changed a lot because of different factors. One factor is education, another is the changing of tradition. The younger generation doesn’t use birds. You can ask them what a honeyguide is. They say they don’t know the birds. That’s the challenge.

When I was doing my [master’s degree] research, I took an 11-year-old child and showed him a honeyguide. The bird was coming around us, singing, but he didn’t understand the meaning of it. That’s when I realized that with social changes and education and development, things are changing a lot.

Most of the people who know about this sort of interaction are the older generation. My idea is to ensure that young people know about it too.

Mongabay: You’ve studied human-honeyguide cooperation among three other ethnic groups in Tanzania: the Sonjo, Hadzabe and the Ndorobo. Are there any notable differences in the way they do their honey hunting?

Eliupendo Laltaika: Actually, yes. These people are still active honey hunters. They use different calls to attract the honeyguides. But also they [Hadza and Ndorobo] have been using honey as a source of food, unlike the Maasai.

The Maasai use honey for traditional purposes, like making beer or for ceremonial purposes. But these other ethnic groups use it for food and rely on honey hunting for their survival. Before, the Maasai used honey as a substitute for sugar. Now there is an alternative in the form of refined sugar. This makes them lazy in honey hunting compared to the other groups like the Hadzabe or Ndorobo, who are poor and far from town.

Honey hunters use several different methods to subdue the bees besides the use of fire. The Maasai use the fungus known as engishimui [Scleroderma verrucosum], blowing spores into the bees’ nests, and the Sonjo burn bundles of a herb to subdue the bees.

The Ndorobo “cheat” the bird as a way of harvesting more honey. They won’t harvest honey from the first bees’ nest they are brought to, but wait until the honeyguide leads them to more another tree, and that is when they harvest the honey and provide rewards to the honeyguide. The Ndorobo also claim ownership of bees’ nests by placing a personal mark on the trees as a way of protecting them against other honey hunters who may want to harvest.

Eliupendo Laltaika interviewing a member of the Ndorobo community.
Eliupendo Laltaika interviewing Ndorobo honey-hunters, Sep 2020. Image courtesy Amana Kilawi.

Mongabay: Generally, then, would you say that the modern economy in Tanzania, and social change, are altering the way that honey hunting is done?

Eliupendo Laltaika: The government has been motivating the community to have beehives, because they believe that’s a modern way of getting honey to eat and to sell. So, the supply of beehives is more common to the Maasai because we have NGOs supplying them, and that makes people avoid honey hunting.

And for young people, honey hunting is something for those who don’t have an education. They think, “We don’t need to go 5, or 6 or 10 kilometers [3-6 miles] on foot to do honey hunting, we can just place a beehive that will fill with honey.”

The Hadzabe and Ndorobo are still hunter-gatherers. Development for them is still poor, and they still maintain their own cultural way of life. But the Maasai and the Sonjo have been affected by cultural change and also development. We have seen that these two cultural groups have started to interact with other cultural groups that practice the modern way of living.

So now they practice cultivation and other activities; education to them has improved, and that is why we say that honey hunting is thriving among only two groups [the Ndorobo and Hadzabe] compared to the Maasai and the Sonjo.

Mongabay: Your master’s degree research investigates environmental impacts on bees and honey hunting, notably the changes to the prevalence of flowering plants and trees in and around the NCA. What is happening to the vegetation?

Eliupendo Laltaika: Human impact on the environment has changed the vegetation type, but also caused the disappearance of flowering plants. Most of the savanna has been cleared, and frequent wildfires set by livestock keepers has affected the vegetation. That has hindered the honey-hunting activities in the area.

Certain trees are preferred by wild bees, like Commiphora africana trees known to the Maasai as osilaleyi. But the community has been cutting them down to make fences, for making bomas [protective cattle enclosures] and to build houses — the same tree is used for different purposes.

This makes the bees go and look for places that are preferable to them, a place where they can get enough pollen. If you go to a protected area, the community is not allowed to do any activities. I did my research in remote areas and in protected areas. In Ngorongoro Conservation Area there is a bit of restriction on human activities and this makes a good habitat for bees and honey.

We still have very few areas that honey hunters can use for honey hunting, and the population of the honeyguides is small. Sometimes you would move for two or three days without seeing a honeyguide. That is also a problem.

A greater honeyguide sitting in a flowering tree.
A greater honeyguide sitting in a flowering tree. Image by Charles Gates via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: As a former honey hunter, and now a conservation biologist and researcher, what is your call to action for communities who still maintain a relationship with the honeyguide?

Eliupendo Laltaika: I urge the government and the community [around the NCA] who are not honey hunters to protect the ecosystem that provides the resource. I also urge the community to reduce environmental destruction, and to provide conservation awareness to the people regarding vegetation change and the importance of bees in the ecosystem.

If you go to town you’ll see that people there have been changing again from using sugar because of diabetes, which affects a lot of people in Tanzania. People in town use honey rather than sugar. They prefer mostly honey from the honey hunters rather than honey from established beehives. They believe that wild honey is more nutritious.

I want communities to protect their areas and their honeyguides. This sort of natural interaction is an amazing interaction. We need to still have it in the future.

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

Banner image: Eliupendo Laltaika interviewing a Sonjo honey-hunter, Sep 2020. Image courtesy Amana Kilawi.

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