Many of us grow attached to animals, whether it’s by raising a puppy or regularly feeding a crow on the porch. But for millennia, certain communities around the world have formed a different sort of bond—one where animals are more like business partners than pets. Dolphins herd fish for fishermen, for example, and some African tribes work with birds to find honey.
Collaborations like these are dying off, however, says Jessica van der Wal, a behavioral ecologist at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology who studies the honey hunters. In a paper published today in Conservation Letters, she and her colleagues provide a toolkit for documenting and preserving these partnerships. Science chatted with van der Wal about the complex relationships some humans form with wildlife—and what we can do to protect them. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How do humans use birds to find honey?
A: Our main field site is in northern Mozambique, where people still depend on wild honey as a source of income. Honey hunters attract birds called greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) by using loud sounds—a wide range of whistles and melodies, and sometimes banging tools and blowing into snail shells.
Once it arrives, the bird responds with a chattering call that it uses only in that context. It flies from tree to tree, urging the person to follow. While the bird is chattering, the human will continue making a sound—they go “brrr-hm!” It’s really a conversation between these two species that is interconnected and quite intimate.
When the bird reaches a bees’ nest, it falls quiet. The honey hunter will then normally subdue the bees using smoke and use an ax or a machete to get out the honey. After that, the honeyguide feeds on the beeswax that’s left behind—and the bee larvae as well. Honeyguides can rarely access these resources on their own, so cooperating with humans is really helpful for them.
Q: What are some other examples of humans and animals working together in the wild?
A: The only other active example we know of are with dolphins corralling schools of fish for people in Brazil and Myanmar. But there are many extinct cases of human-wildlife cooperation. We have published eyewitness accounts of Aboriginal Australians working with orcas to kill whales. And we believe Indigenous peoples once hunted with wolves, too.
Q: Why did some of those practices go extinct?
A: The biggest factor that ended these relationships seems to be destructive interference from human outsiders. Some of these relationships disappeared in Australia, for example, because European settlers killed an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin and two cooperating orcas. And in North America, the European settlers killed not only the wolves, but ungulates and Indigenous people in the Great Plains in the 19th century.
Q: Are modern honey hunting and dolphin fishing also at risk of disappearing?
A: Absolutely. We know that both of these practices were once much more widespread. Today, there’s a mix of environmental and cultural threats they face. A big one is that the younger generations just aren’t as interested in this cooperation—maybe for economic reasons or because of urbanization. Another factor is the degradation of natural habitats, which leads to strained resources and fewer animals to work with.
Q: What can we do to protect these practices?
A: We need to understand the threats and why they’re disappearing. Maybe bringing in tourists to watch these unique practices could make them more economically viable. Sellers could also indicate which goods resulted from these partnerships, and perhaps hike up the prices. Even just raising awareness about these relationships may be enough to encourage people to keep up their traditions.
But whatever interventions we use need to be designed together with the help of participating communities. We need to make sure these are things they themselves want and need.
Q: Why are these relationships worth saving?
A: These practices are beneficial to both the human and the wildlife. But beyond that, studying these examples can give insights into the diverse ways that our ancestors interacted with the natural world in the past. There’s so much indigenous, ecological, and cultural knowledge that we need to keep for future generations. That’s what I’m trying to do in my own work—by mapping the remaining honey-hunting cultures in Africa. Through local collaboration with people in the countries where it still occurs, we can not only understand how the mutualism varies, but also archive it. And hopefully, this will make for more informed conservation plans.
Q: How so?
A: Honey hunters or people that depend on forest resources can be really good custodians of their landscapes. They have this intense respect for their wildlife partner and this amazing knowledge of how it exists.
There’s always been this big gap between conservation managers and the local communities they’re serving, and a topic like this could actually help close that gap. It is such a precious cultural heritage that I think needs to be at least documented, if not protected, for future generations.