In Tanzania’s Serengeti are one of the world’s last remaining true hunter-gatherer tribes. Living in the cradle of all civilisation, the Hazda people are largely devoid of modern amenities. There are no corner shops, butchers or supermarkets. If they want something, they have to go and get it, with no safety net. This means regularly putting themselves at extreme risk for the sake of a meal and using traditional weaponry for animal hunting and to fend off adversaries from the natural world. Everything they eat is foraged from the land around them, their diet varying according to the seasons and availability. This is how all humanity survived for millennia.
Today, we live in an age of convenience. For many of us, all the food we could ever want is at our fingertips - only a short walk or sometimes just a click away. This is an unprecedented luxury in human history. For a long time, and still for the majority of people around the world, sourcing sustainable food was and is a challenge. While those of us living in relative comfort may have forgotten our connection to what we eat, it is important to remind ourselves that every day some people go to extraordinary lengths to secure a meal.
Much of the hunting that is familiar in the Western world exists as a form of sport. Though the ethical considerations and question marks over these practises are numerous, the tragedy is that this is the closest that many of us ever come to building a relationship with where our food comes from. However, there are still places where hunting is not a symbol of excess, but an essential part of everyday life. Beyond the Hazda, in other remote corners of the world, there are dozens of societies that depend on their relationship with and understanding of the natural world for survival.
Perhaps nowhere is this relationship more pronounced than in the world’s jungles. Despite being among the most biodiverse places on earth, for the uninitiated, the jungle can appear more like a green desert than a paradise. The animals of the forest have evolved to melt seamlessly into the undergrowth - catching a glimpse is challenging, let alone catching a meal. Over centuries spent honing their craft, the world’s most isolated tribes have become experts at exploiting this environment and using nature to their advantage. Perhaps the most well-known weapons of choice are the blowpipes and darts of the Amazon, where tribesmen use the venom of poisonous frogs to toxify their armoury. Despite the potentially deadly consequences of mishandling the frogs, Amazonian residents know that the risk is worth the reward. This understanding serves to make them lethal hunters in an environment that many of us, however heavily armed with modern equipment, would find an impossible challenge.
The techniques that humanity has developed to tackle the challenges posed by dry land are many and varied. However, no environment prompts and demands greater ingenuity than the world’s oceans. It is estimated that today, over three billion people depend upon the sea for their livelihood. While much of this dependence is commercial and hence industrialised, there are still those who practise extreme hunting methods, arguably the most extraordinary of whom are the villagers of Lamalera in Indonesia. Using small wooden boats and traditional harpoons, the residents of this village do battle with gigantic sperm whales over the course of a few months each year. Huntsmen leap from their boats into the ocean, using their own body weight to impale the animals, while the crews of the tiny vessels row frantically, both to overpower the creatures and keep themselves afloat. Though the struggle may be incompatible with many of our modern views on whaling and conservation, the hunt forms a strong part of the village’s cultural identity. The traditional and daring approach means that only about six whales are killed a year and that the hunt is a true contest between animal and man.
The sea is not the only aquatic environment that prompts hunting ingenuity. The world’s lakes and rivers pose their own unique challenges, often requiring even more specialised skills than the ocean. Some of the most hostile environments can be found in waterfalls and rapids. Fast-moving water and deep pools make for excellent fishing, but also for treacherous conditions. Overcoming these varied problems results in some extraordinary techniques. In Laos, when the Mekong river swells in the rainy season, some fishermen suspend homemade wires over potentially deadly rapids in order to access their favourite spots. Meanwhile, the fishermen of the Zambezi river in Africa elect to practice their craft at the very top of Victoria falls, in order to avoid the many dangerous animals of the river. These extreme lengths show that eeking out a living by the water is not for the faint of heart.
It is not just hunting for personal survival that poses a challenge. As the world becomes ever more commercialised, many specialist products are in increased demand. Often, these particular products cannot be harvested by industrial methods and are incredibly hard to reach. Wild scallops and abalone, for instance, can only be harvested through hand diving, a labour-intensive, highly specialised and often dangerous profession. Abalone divers are at particular risk of shark attack, due to the predator-rich waters where the shellfish are found. The serious money available for a substantial abalone catch makes the risk worth it for some, but every abalone diver worth their salt has a tale of a potentially deadly encounter in the deep.
As we have become increasingly detached from our food, it has become easier to forget the risks that are often involved with feeding a family. For people like the Hazda, these risks are all too real. Our separation from the realities of eating meat makes it easy to dismiss all hunting as cruel and pointlessly dangerous. There is a clear distinction between slaughter for sport and for survival. While one is wasteful and ultimately disrespectful, the other is essential. If we were to truly understand where our food comes from and the sacrifices that were often made to deliver it, not only would we consider what we all eat more carefully, but we would have a far greater respect for what ends up on our plate. Perhaps we all need to spend more time rebuilding our own relationships with the world around us before we can legitimately claim to be comfortable with eating the hunted.