The Gurung tribesmen of Nepal are master honey hunters, risking their lives collecting honeycomb in the foothills of the Himalayas, using nothing more than handmade rope ladders and long sticks known as tangos. Most of the honey bees’ nests are located on steep inaccessible, south-west facing cliffs to avoid predators and for increased exposure to direct sunlight.
Before a hunt can commence the honey hunters are required to perform a ceremony to placate the cliff gods. This involves sacrificing a sheep, offering flowers, fruits and rice, and praying to the cliff gods to ensure a safe hunt.
Engulfed by the thick, acrid smoke, the hunter jousts tentatively at a nest with a bamboo stick with a sickle or wooden plate at one end, cutting the exposed honeycomb away from the cliff face. Using another stick to guide the basket hanging beside him, he catches the honeycomb as it falls before the basket is then lowered to the ground.
A honey hunter clings precariously to a rope ladder while he waits for the rising smoke to drive thousands of angry Apis Laboriosa, the largest honey bee in the world, out of their nests. Despite this being a team effort – up to a dozen men are drafted in to support the hunter or ‘kuiche’ – there is silence, pressure and precision.
One major threat to traditional, responsible honey hunting comes from the growing medicinal reputation of Himalayan honey, which is increasingly exported for use in Japanese, Chinese and Korean traditional medicines and to treat infections and injuries. Spring ‘Red’ honey is the most sought after, costing upwards of $US15 per kilogram. This demand has resulted in a shift in ownership of the cliffs away from the indigenous communities to the government, allowing them to open honey-harvesting rights to contractors. At the same time the younger generation’s reluctance to follow in the footsteps of their elders, due to the risks involved, limited income and moving away to cities, is also contributing to the dwindling numbers of traditional honey hunters.
As the honey hunter descends the rope ladder, the blood, blisters and bee stings that are synonymous with this treacherous tradition become visible.
After a three-hour trek back up to the village carrying approximately 20kg of honey, this hunter enjoyed a hard earned piece of honeycomb by the fire.
With funding from the Austrian government, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is addressing problems arising from commercialisation of honey hunting and the impact of tourism through the Himalayan Honeybees project.