Dangling from a rope ladder high in the Himalayan cliffs of central Nepal, Gurung honey hunters brave tornadoes of angry bees to collect their otherworldly golden nests. It’s a tradition that’s carried on for generations, with roots going back thousands of years, but it might not last much longer. With bee populations already dwindling, the delicate ecosystem that underpins this tradition is threatened by a changing climate, a rising market for the bees’ spring honey, and a new invasive species: tourists.
Photographer Andrew Newey took pains to avoid contributing to these problems when he documented the Gurung ritual in 2013. Newey spent weeks trying to find responsible honey hunters that wouldn’t exploit the bees and their habitat for his money, and will not reveal the location of the cliffs they harvest.
“I’d done plenty of research beforehand and I knew that tourism was having a detrimental impact on the region,” he says. “It was massively under threat and I thought I’d go over there and document it before it just disappears like too many other traditions around the world.”
It’s an insanely dangerous and sometimes fatal ritual. Usually wearing no protective clothing, the hunters climb some 200 to 300 feet up a cliff on a hand-woven rope ladder to gather the gossamer motherships of Apis laboriosa, the world’s largest honeybee.
Using smoke to sedate the bees, the hunters have learned to tolerate the stings as they juggle the ladder and two 8-yard-long bamboo “tangos.” One tango is to chisel the golden hives off the rock while the other pins a basket against the cliff to catch the combs.
Filled baskets are lowered back down by a support team waiting at the base of the cliff. They move their way from one side of the cliff to the other over three long work days, before packing up and making the three-hour hike back to the village.
“There’s a big team, and they see it as a sort of social event, a bit of a catch,” Newey says. “I can’t imagine how sore the cutter’s muscles must be.”
Even though honey hunting has become institutionalized to some degree — the 58-year-old hunter in Newey’s photos is a professional who services about a dozen villages — it carries strong religious significance to the Gurung. Prior to each hunt, a sheep is sacrificed to appease the mountain gods for a safe harvest. Those who die are said not to have prayed enough. Responsible hunters only harvest in the spring and summer, leaving a third of the hives to repopulate before the next season.
The villages usually keep and share autumn honey for tea and other uses, but the spring honey — called red honey for obvious reasons — is increasingly popular to Japan, China and Korea for its perceived medicinal qualities. Unscrupulous trekking agencies are cashing in, frequently buying off hunters to stage hunts at all times of year either to sell at market or to bring tourists. These practices disturb the bee populations, disrupting a key part of the local ecosystem and threatening to destroy the tradition itself. The Gurung’s typical autumn harvest yields about 50 gallons — on Newey’s visit they only got 20.
“The Gurung tribes people used to own the cliffs,” he says. “But because there’s so much money now involved in exporting the honey, the government is trying to open up the sites to contractors, basically taking the land away from the Gurung people and offering it to contractors who are there to harvest as much honey as possible, and of course causing a decline in the bee population.”
Newey was attracted, like many of the tourists he was trying to differentiate himself from, by a 1970s National Geographic documentary on the Gurung. In October of 2013, five years after first seeing the documentary, he found himself in Nepal’s large Kaski district searching for honey hunters. A chance conversation with strangers at a local restaurant led him to a small Gurung village where the responsible harvesting methods were still practiced. Wary of being misled, he made sure he wasn’t just about to line the proverbial pockets of a bunch of profiteers.
“I tested them on more than one occasion,” he says, “Just trying to say, ‘Look, we know you have to sacrifice a sheep as part of the ritual. If we pay for the sheep, will you give us a demonstration?’ And they just flat out refused, which was brilliant. We were happy to wait.”
The villagers told him it was too early in the year for a hunt, so Newey traveled to Bangladesh in the meantime. The school of an English teacher in the village had collapsed, and Newey offered to donate a few computers in exchange for the teacher agreeing to let him know when the hunt was about to begin. Six weeks later, he got an email from the teacher while traveling in Bangladesh, and returned to the village to join the hunt for the first three days of December.
“They were a little bit confused as to why we suddenly had decided to go back at that exact time when they were going to do the hunt,” he says. “So they knew that we got an insider that was giving us inside information, and of course we didn’t want to tell them that it was the teacher. But I’m sure some of them worked it out.“
Within a short time, the villagers understood his intention and treated him as a friend, allowing Newey to shoot his photos while shooing away other trekkers who stumbled on the hunting site with their own cameras. By the end of his stay, word had spread of his offer to replace the school’s computers. The village showed its appreciation by sending him off with a ceremony at the school. All the school’s children came out to sing songs and drape him and his party in floral necklaces.
Those kids are unlikely to continue the tradition that brought Newey to their village. As the country continues to modernize, jobs in the service and tourism industries become more likely to draw young people than the hazardous ritual of gathering honey from the cliffs. The tradition is carried on for now by the old guard, but when they go it’s unlikely anyone will be left to bring in the honey.
“It’s such a dangerous job, they’re not interested in risking their lives,” he says. “When these old guys finally give it up, there will be very, very few people left that are prepared to do it.”
source: Wired, 26 Mar 2014