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  • Heavenly Path News Team

"How Nepal’s cliff honey hunters are risking their lives"

A minor slip could mean falling hundreds of feet and sure death for hunters, who carefully navigate the steep mountains.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

The Gurung tribespeople of Nepal have been collecting honey from Himalayan cliffs for centuries, but now their lifestyle is under threat from commercialisation and tours offering visitors a chance to 'join a honey hunt'. Photographer Andrew Newey spent two weeks living with the Gurung in central Nepal, documenting the risks and skill involved in this dying tradition.

High up in Nepal’s mountains, groups of men risk their lives to harvest much sought-after wild honey from hives on cliffs.

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.

[Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo]

A minor slip could mean falling hundreds of feet (dozens of metres) and sure death for the hunters, who carefully navigated the steep and narrow openings on the mountain.

[Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo]

Before starting to climb a steep cliff high above the Tama Koshi River, Nepali reminded the group to ensure they had enough food, water and local alcohol. They piled up grass and logs at the bottom of the cliff and lit a fire to smoke the bees out of their hives.

Nepali climbed up a ladder made from bamboo rope with a sharp bamboo stick in one hand and a basket in another – the stick to break off the hives and the basket to collect them.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

Dangling in the air, he sliced off pieces of hives and caught them with the basket, then gave a signal to a teammate to use a rope tied to the basket, full of dripping hives, to lower it to the ground. Two other team members prepared to clean off all the bees and squeeze the hives to extract the honey.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

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.

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.

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.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

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.

One of the Gurung men watches from the base of the cliff as the cutter repositions himself on the rope ladder 200ft above. An influx of tourists trekking the world famous Annapurna circuit has stimulated interest among trekking agencies in organising ‘staged’ honey hunting events in areas such as Ghandruk, Manang and Lamjung. They charge US$250-$1,500 for one honey-hunting event, very little of which is paid to the indigenous communities. Honey hunters are tempted by this short-term financial benefit to harvest outside of the normal season with tourists using climbing gear to accompany them, damaging the cliff face and nesting sites in the process.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

The honey is divided up among the villagers and one of the first uses is for a cup of honey tea. Newey arranged to visit a honey-hunting site well away from the popular Annapurna circuit. Despite this, he was frequently asked by the hunters how he had found out when and where the hunt would take place: "Because these are responsible hunters they were concerned about their cliffs suffering from this unwanted tourist activity if the location was disclosed."

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.

Photograph: Andrew Newey

Coordinators of the project aim to work with traditional honey hunters to preserve their sustainable harvesting techniques. They also hope to find an effective way of regulating harvests by only licensing those with proven knowledge and experience, limiting the number of nests harvested and implementing a system of fines and punishment. The overall aim is to help communities reap financial benefit from an indigenous resource while preserving a bee species that will ensure the pollination of crops and maintenance of plant biodiversity in the long term.

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