In parts of Africa, a small bird called the Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) helps people search for honey. It approaches people and chatters and flies in the direction of a wild bees’ nest, urging the person to follow. When bird and human reach the nest together, the human honey-hunter knows just what to do: they subdue the bees and harvest the honey with smoke and tools. When that’s done, the little bird feeds on the beeswax and larvae left behind.
This scene has been playing out in Africa for thousands of years. It may even date back to up to 1.5 million years ago when hominins are thought to have gained control of fire. This unique human-bird partnership is a remarkable example of cooperation between people and wild animals that has arisen through natural selection. Today, human-honeyguide cooperation is becoming scarcer because of changing cultures and deteriorating habitats.
Our review paper, published in Conservation Letters outlines possible ways to safeguard active cases of human-wildlife cooperation. Other examples include human-dolphin cooperation that still occurs in Brazil and Myanmar.
Together with a multidisciplinary team of 41 scientists, conservationists, and practitioners of human-wildlife cooperation from around the world, we reviewed the benefits of known cases of human-wildlife cooperation. We also examined the threats they face.
Value and decline
Our review highlighted that cooperating with honeyguides leads to more and better honey harvests than artisanal honey harvesting that’s done without the birds’ help. Cooperating with honeyguides has been found to increase food security. It facilitates cultural traditions and enables income or trade.
The cooperation has deep cultural value. In northern Mozambique, Yao honey-hunters are well regarded in their communities because of the valuable skills passed from father to son. In Cameroon, honey-hunting with honeyguides is a key aspect of oral history.
Honeyguides benefit from the interaction, too. They supplement their insectivorous diet with energy-rich beeswax, which is otherwise much less accessible to them. Human-honeyguide cooperation is a boon for other wax-eating scavengers such as honey badgers. Our team is currently testing how it may also help to regulate the ecosystem via its effects on bees, trees, and seasonal wildfires.