Psycho? The truth about honey badgers

Mike Unwin seeks to explore the reality behind the reputation of ‘the world’s most fearless animal’ – the honey badger

HoneyBadgerIt is early one evening at Sinamatella Rest camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and a shriek rings out from the restaurant terrace. I look up to see that a stocky little animal has leaped onto the table beside mine. Bristling with intent, a grilled half-chicken clamped in its jaws, it snarls at the two horrified diners then jumps down and trots off into the darkness with its prize.

My first encounter with a honey badger was nothing unusual: spend much time in the African bush and you’re bound to have a similar anecdote or two. Despite its modest size, few animals have a more impressive reputation. Featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘world’s most fearless animal’, it invariably comes with the adjectives ‘tenacious’, ‘feisty’ or even ‘ferocious’. Indeed, the South African army has adopted the honey badger’s Afrikaans name, ratel, for their toughest armoured fighting vehicle.

Some stories stretch our credulity. Does this terrier-sized creature really chase lions off their kill and attack buffaloes by running underneath and biting off their testicles? Does it really survive venomous snakebites and sustain more than 300 bee-stings with impunity? Can it actually destroy a steel trap and savage to death a three-metre python?

Today the honey badger – once little known beyond naturalists, safari-goers and beekeepers – has become that ultimate in celebrity: a ‘YouTube sensation’. Millions have watched its death-defying antics, including the individual bitten by a puff adder that lapsed into unconsciousness, recovered, ate the snake and trotted away as though nothing had happened. Amid such sensationalism, myth can sometimes be hard to separate from reality.

So what is the truth about the honey badger? Well, for a start, it isn’t really a badger. Yes, it does – like badgers – belong to the Mustelidae family of carnivores, along with such slinky cousins as weasels, otters and ferrets. But the honey badger has its very own genus, Mellivora, and is more closely related to the martens and polecats than it is to true badgers (Melinae).

The name ‘badger’ is understandable, however, as this animal is roughly the size, colour and shape of its European counterpart, with a stocky, low-slung physique, short tail, and coat distinctly marked in black, white and grey. It also has a badger’s powerful jaws, long front claws for digging, and formidable hide that is both tough enough to resist teeth and stings and loose enough for an individual, if captured, to wriggle around and turn on its assailant.

Built more for strength and stamina than speed or stealth, this resourceful predator can dig holes, climb trees, jog 20km a night and fight off competitors five times its size. Such versatility allows it to survive in almost any terrain. Indeed, honey badgers range from the bush of sub-Saharan Africa to the deserts of the Middle East and the forests of India, and scientists recognise twelve different subspecies.

On the menu
So much for ‘badger’, but why ‘honey’? Well, this animal is, indeed, a raider of bee’s nests, both for the juicy grubs and the sweet nectar. Its thick skin helps protect it from stings, and it can survive a furious assault that would finish many other mammals, us included. It is not immune, though: honey badgers have been stung to death when raiding a hive.

Likewise, the honey badger does not have an immunity to snake venom. But it does have enough resistance, plus dense fur, thick skin and surprising agility, to ensure that venomous snakes figure prominently on its menu. Indeed it will think nothing of tackling a fat puff adder or dragging a deadly cape cobra out of a tree.

Other food ranges from insects and berries to mammals and birds. Honey badgers will ransack a rubbish bin, crunch a tortoise from its shell, dig up dung-beetle brood balls and drag fox cubs from their burrow. In short, they eat pretty much anything.

All about attitude
It is the honey badger’s interactions with other animals that has earned it the ‘fearless’ reputation; in particular, its readiness to stand its ground against much larger predators, including hyenas and even lions. Much of this is bluff: a teeth-rattling display of aggression and a refusal to back down unsettles an animal used to smaller creatures fleeing. As a final indignity, the badger will douse its adversary with a foul-smelling squirt from the anal gland.

Records do exist of lions and leopards preying on honey badgers. But, in general, trying to kill something that bites, fights, wriggles, has an impenetrable hide and douses you with stink is just too much like hard work.

Scientists remain unconvinced that honey badgers deliberately target the vital parts of big beasts. Certainly, though, they have been observed challenging heavyweights such as buffalos and rhinos, especially if they approach their den. The honey badger certainly oozes confidence – the abiding impression when encountering one of these jogging blithely along, nose to the ground and tail held high, is of a creature utterly heedless of danger. And its bold black-and-white markings, just like a skunk’s, reinforce the warning to ‘keep back!’

It is even suggested that the silver mane of cheetah cubs may act as protective mimicry, aping the pattern of a honey badger in order to deceive any would-be predator that comes across them.

As for its own cubs, honey badgers display unusual devotion. The two young (on average), which are born in an underground burrow, stay with their mother for up to two years. Two individuals seen out foraging together are thus more likely to be mother and grown cub than an adult pair.

Social interaction between badgers is noisy. If you’re lucky enough to observe them together, feeding or during courtship, you may be treated to the full repertoire of their whimpers, squeals, snarls, snorts and growls.

Conflicts and resolutions
Unfortunately the honey badger’s resourcefulness and persistence have led to serious conflict with the one species it cannot outsmart: humans. Destructive raids on poultry runs and beehives have long made this animal the sworn enemy of farmers and beekeepers; indeed beekeepers have been known to lose their entire livelihood in one night. And with honey badgers able to dig under fences, bite through wires and even kill dogs, it’s small wonder that aggrieved individuals turn to traps and poison.

Today, persecution – largely illegal – is driving honey badger populations to the edge across its range. Numbers of this elusive animal have always been hard to assess but there is little doubt that in many areas they are plummeting. In South Africa alone it has disappeared from large areas of the North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal and Cape provinces in which it was once abundant.

Thankfully, there are solutions. Conservation initiatives introduced have pioneered the use of honey badger-resistant beehives – raised on metal poles. The honey is marketed as ‘honey badger-friendly’ to allow consumers to choose responsibly.

So, will the honey badger’s legendary toughness and versatility allow it to survive the ultimate 21st-century challenge: living alongside the most destructive animal of all? Keep your fingers crossed. And perhaps your legs, too, just in case.

Honey badger factfile
Size body length 55-77cm, plus 12-30cm tail; males weigh 9-16kg, females 5-10kg.  Reproduction average of two cubs (kits) born in an underground burrow after a six-month gestation period; young stay with mother for up to two years.
Range Africa, from the Cape to southern Algeria; Middle East; western Asia, from Iran to the Indian Peninsula.
Habitat semi-desert to woodland, ranging up to 4000m (in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains).
Diet everything from insects and scorpions to reptiles, birds and small mammals; specialist predator on bee larvae, rodents and snakes; devours all parts of prey, even feathers and bones.

Myths and mayhem
√ Honey badgers can defend themselves successfully against much larger predators, including leopards, hyenas and lions.
√ Leopards are occasional predators of honey badgers – usually young, sick or injured individuals.
√ Honey badgers can survive venomous snakebite and multiple stings.
√ Honey badgers can use tools: they have been documented piling up objects in order to reach food.
√ Other predators, including jackals and birds of prey, will follow a foraging honey badger in order to capture prey it unearths.

False (probably)
X The cooperative relationship between the honey badger and greater honeyguide, in which the bird leads the mammal to a bees nest then feeds on any spoils left behind, has never been documented by scientists.
X Honey badgers are not immune to bee-stings or snake venom.
X There is no verified record of a honey badger killing either a buffalo or lion by biting off its scrotum.
X A honey badger did not win the World’s Strongest Animal competition by dragging a railway carriage 100m along a track using only its teeth.