The Honey Badger

The Honey Badger

A honey badger out on patrol for food…

Few animals in the bushveld have a reputation as fearsome as that of the honey badger (Mellivora capensis). Also known as the Ratel (an Afrikaans word for rattle – descriptive of the sound it makes when agitated), they are rated as the “most fearless animal in the world” in the Guinness Book of Records. This tough little character is utterly and completely fearless. Lions, leopards, buffalo, snakes, humans… The honey badger doesn’t back down for any of these, and most of these animals willingly give way to this ferocious little critter. Let’s explore why…

To begin with, their teeth are sharp, and their jaws are exceptionally strong. In fact, strong enough to chew through the shell of a tortoise – which generally presents a challenge for most large predators. The badger is also tenacious, and seldom walks away from a fight once it is truly angry. Like their skunk cousins, honey badgers also have scent glands.  These play a role in territorial marking and are also used a defence mechanism, emitting truly awful odours when threatened/excited.

Even the leopard gives way to a honey badger.

Below is a quote from Top Gear’s wickedly amusing “Botswana Special”:

“May : You will drive your cars to Namibia through the Okavango Delta. …In the Okavango you will encounter many deadly animals, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, hippos, black rhino and crocodile. …shield-nosed snakes, puff adders, boomslang, cape cobras, banded cobras, black mambas, black widows and thick-tailed scorpions.

Clarkson: What about the honey badger?

Hammond: The what?

Clarkson: Honey badger.

May: That’s the least scary sounding animal in the world.

Clarkson: The honey badger does not kill you to eat you. It tears off your testicles.

Hammond: It does not!

May: Why is it called a honey badger?

Hammond: Exactly.

Clarkson: Because that’s what’s made it angry.

Hammond: Why isn’t it called the badger of death?”

Fact or fiction??? I have heard of this many, many times, but it is difficult to find verified accounts or a video of this behaviour. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you chat to any locals in wilderness areas, they will often cite this as a fact. And mostly, where there’s smoke, there is fire. It would make sense, as the honey badger is inordinately intelligent and, on most animals, the testicles are the most sensitive organs – located at a height easily reached by an angry badger. Peter Apps, in his book “Wild Ways”, mentions that they have been recorded killing a blue wildebeest and a waterbuck – both of which bled to death after having their scrotum’s torn off… Ouch!

Imagine… the honey badger’s skin is significantly thicker than that of a buffalo!

The skin of a honey badger is thicker than many mammals in the animal kingdom – at least six millimetres thick, which is significantly thicker than that of a buffalo, which is around 50 times its size. This thick skin is a great self-defence strategy against spears, arrows, porcupine quills, bee stings, predators with sharp teeth and snake bites. Resembling rubber, the badger’s skin is also loose – allowing it to “move around” within its skin. This allows the honey badger to twist and escape from the grip of an attacker – or, when in a predator’s jaws, to twist around and bite their face/nose. 

Except for the strong mother/cub relationship, honey badgers are loners who only team up to mate. They spend most of their time foraging. This “differs amongst females and males, with females covering a relatively smaller area at approximately 10 km per day. They forage in a zigzag pattern, from one bush to another, digging up to ten holes per kilometre. Males on the other hand travel long distances covering approximately 27 km per day and only digging an estimated two holes per kilometre” (Kruuk & Mills 1983).

A young cheetah cub may just look enough like a badger to deter other predators…

Their long fore claws are used to dig burrows that can be three meters long and approximately 1.5 metres deep. These are used as a resting place for the honey badgers. They can, however, create homes with anything readily available – such as under exposed tree roots, rock cracks/gaps, and old uninhabited termite mounds. They often take over burrows dug out by yellow mongoose, springhares, Cape foxes and bat-eared foxes.

These beehives could be raised on poles or hung from trees to keep them high and out of reach of a badger.

Sadly, these animals face regular threats by man. In reality, the honey badgers provide a “useful ecosystem service in agriculture because they feed extensively on rodents and arthropods who are considered to be agricultural pests (Smithers 1971; Begg et al. 2003a)”. Whilst the word ‘honey’ embedded in their common name implies a love of bee honey – they are primarily carnivorous and insectivorous (consuming the bee larvae within the beehive instead of solely searching out the honey). Many have been killed by beekeepers because they raid and destroy their hives. Persecution of honey badgers by beekeepers has been recorded since the early 1800s. Begg (2001b) found that the honey badgers caused damage with a monetary value of about R500 000 per annum in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga alone. Beekeepers retaliate by shooting, poisoning and gin trapping honey badgers, accelerating the rate of population decline. The solution is, however, really simple. Raise their hives to a few metres above the ground so that honey badgers cannot easily reach it. Informed consumers and environmentally conscious retailers such as Woolworths insist on only buying/selling honey that has earned the ‘badger-friendly’ designation, which confirms that the honey is produced by beekeepers using badger-friendly beekeeping methods. Their numbers are also influenced by harvest for use in traditional medicine. The species is used in the preparation of remedies used as protective charm for the people and their hunting dogs.

This label ensures that you are buying honey that hasn’t cost a badger its life…

What else do badgers eat? Insects, amphibians, snakes, reptiles, birds, and mammals, as well as roots, bulbs, berries, and fruits. They dig for food, climb trees, and even actively hunt. Almost anything goes. In a study conducted at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it was proved that they switched to consuming fruit such as tsamma melons mainly to obtain moisture in a highly water-scarce environment rather than use it as a food source. The species is considered to be a “mainly carnivorous species, as they were mostly observed to consume small invertebrates and vertebrates” (Begg, 2006). And when tired, they will scoop a temporary burrow in the ground, a termite mound or even a tree stump to curl up and rest. Their exploits with snakes are legendary. Contrary to popular misconception, they are not immune to snake venom and do occasionally die. As a rule, partly because of the fact that their dense fur and thick, tough skin protect them from full envenomation, they are relatively resistant and mostly survive even the most venomous of snake bites.

Finally – let’s discuss a honey badger’s intelligence. These animals are right up there with the brightest. The badger has an unusually large brain for a mammal of its body size (brain–body weight ratio). Not only are they able to learn and figure things out, but they are also able to use tools. The complexity of tool use is often seen as an indication of a species’ general intelligence. Twenty years ago, Brian Jones, a wildlife conservationist, rescued a honey badger he named Stoffel. History proved he was one seriously smart badger. But don’t take my word for it – do yourself a favour and watch the BBC video detailing Stoffle’s escapades (info box below) – he takes “tool use” to the next level…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Stoffel, the honey badger that can escape from anywhere! – BBC

The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger (original narration by Randall)

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE! With apologies in advance…

Snake Killers: Honey Badgers of The Kalahari [Nature Documentary]

Python, Honey Badger & Jackal Fight Each Other. (Really interesting sighting).

Honey badger release gone wrong ????

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