When you first see a honey badger you can’t help thinking “Wow, he’s so cute, with his neat white stripe and bushy tail, you just want to stroke and cuddle him.” Wrong idea, because although they look cute, they aren’t.
National Geographic calls them the meanest animal in the world, while the Guinness World Records book refers to them as being the most fearless animal alive. In fact, they’re so fierce that according to City of Cape Town veterinarian Dr Dorothy Breed, they’ve been known to attack lions. Yet at only 23-28cm high, 55-77cm long and weighing in under 16kg, their size is not exactly daunting, and belies their fighting spirit.
Good news though is that they usually only attack when surprised by predators. So, don’t mess with them and they won’t mess with you. (I know this as I had one in my tent one night. Not sure who was more surprised when I went to investigate. We both survived intact, although I did miss a couple of nice lamb chops.)
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So, definitely no cuddly love creature here! But just why are they known to be so fearless and fierce?
1. Fast metabolism
These ‘bad badger boys’ of the animal kingdom have a high metabolism. This means they hunt relentlessly for food, making their success rate much higher than their lazier animal counterparts. They mostly hunt during the day, but in more urban areas can become more nocturnal.
2. Eau de cologne x honey badger
Then there is the smell… An anal pouch can be emptied out to mark territory, deter predators (much like a skunk), and some believe calm bees. Its seriously yucky, but fortunately doesn’t last as long as a skunk’s spray.
3. They aren’t picky
Whatever is on offer, they’ll eat! Honey badgers are carnivores and in addition to honey and bee larvae, they have a varied menu of carrion, scorpions, birds, mice, and even bigger animals such as buck and buffalo! They will occasionally eat certain flowers and fruits if food is scarce. Basically, their strength comes from their adaptability.
4. They don’t give up – ever!
If a larger predator attacks them, they fight until death (for them or their prey)! One badger, Stoffel, at the Moholoholo Rehab Centre in Limpopo, clawed his way out of his enclosure and buried under an electric fence to attack lions.
5. And what about snakes?
No problem for these critters. Honey Badgers are immune, or have a degree of immunity, to certain snake venoms. Even the most poisonous snakes, such as a puff adder, are little match for their intrepid hunting skills. The puff adder’s venom might melt human flesh, but for badgers, although it can be lethal, it can also merely put the honey badger into a coma for anything from a few minutes to a few hours, before it regains consciousness to continue his snake snack.
6. Natural armour
Honey Badgers take the term ‘thick skinned’ to a new level! The secret to their fearlessness is a loose but incredibly thick, rubbery skin (about 6mm) round the neck area. When a predator attacks the badger and bites, his skin is so loose that it allows the badger to twist around and attack the other animal, even though it still has him gripped. Few animals will be able to withstand the badger’s mean claws and bite, and so quickly let go. Arrows and spears can seldom penetrate it, so even human hunters’ efforts are thwarted, and bee stings mostly have little effect, although some are known to have died from stings and bites.
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7. They can live just about anywhere
Honey badgers not afraid of tackling many environments. They’re at home in the desert in Namibia, or the outskirts of the Sahara, as they are in the dense Zaire rain forests, (although they prefer drier areas). They equally adapt to living in the afro-alpine steppes in Ethiopia as they do to living at sea-level.
8. And the name ratel?
In Africa, honey badgers are sometimes known as ‘ratels’, which comes from Middle Dutch and means ‘honeycomb’ so no indication there of its temerity. But another explanation has the word coming from the Afrikaans word for a ‘rattle,’ because when they are agitated – which is a lot of the time – they make a sound like a rattle, just to advise you to keep clear. You’ve heard the term ‘as tough as nails’? It translates as ‘so taai soos n ratel’. You have been warned….
9. A fighting spirit
Then the really scary fight technique… If their sharp claws and incredibly strong jaws aren’t enough to make you not want to engage with them, when attacked or cornered, honey badgers have been known to use their sharp claws to remove the testes of lions, kudu, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, waterbuck and well yes, even humans.
10. They are very intelligent
So clever they have been known to create and use tools. Sounds amazing, but it’s true. A 1997 Indian documentary series (Land of the Tiger) showed a honey badger using a log which he rolled and then stood upright to reach a bird. Closer to home, many of us have watched the antics of Stoffel who was able to open a gate and a fridge. In numerous escapes he used a variety of sticks, a rake, his mate as a ‘ladder’, heaps of mud rolled into balls to climb up, and piles of stones.
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11. Then there’s the teeth…
They are so strong they make snacking on tortoises as easy as eating a chicken pie!
Despite their fierceness and fearlessness though, honey badgers still need our protection. In South Africa, honey badgers are a specially protected species and a permit is required to capture or keep one in captivity. In general, they are omnivorous and creative opportunists, which can land them in trouble with humans. Urbanisation has encroached on their territory, reducing their numbers, and irate beekeepers have also been known to kill them. So, if you do come across one of these tenacious creatures, give them the space and respect they deserve.
Words Ann Gadd