Even the myth that it emasculates its prey is enough to evoke the most gruesome imagery among humans. But the ingenuity, intelligence, strength and tenacity of the ratel, as it’s also known, are unrivalled. With its long claws, thick hide, loose skin and bone-crunching jaws, it would be easy to see it as the model for some invincible science fiction creature! Yet this hunting machine is adorned with a coat of cuteness that intrigues and inspires many.Left alone, these animals live out their lives in seclusion, playing a valuable part in the ecology of our biosphere. As a carnivore weighing anything from six to twelve kilograms, the honey badger is, kilo for kilo, one of the most formidable predator species known to man. There’s a documented case of a strong, healthy leopard taking more than an hour to make a meal of an old female honey badger – and even though the leopard prevailed in the end, it certainly didn’t get away unscathed.
Most predator species prefer to avoid the honey badger altogether. In some areas, such as the West Coast of South Africa, they are apex predators: that is, they’re at the top of the food chain. Their diet consists of rodents, snakes, bee larvae, scorpions, lizards and birds. Making a meal of a Cape cobra or even a puff adder is not to be scoffed at, and honey badgers are among the few animals whose bodies have the ability to counteract venom when they get bitten. They can dig up to 50 holes during a single foraging session, and many other species, like the pale chanting goshawk and black-backed jackal, wait in the wings to take advantage of the free buffet.
Their range in the Kalahari is from 140 km2 for females to 640 km2 for males, according to experts Colleen and Keith Begg. Although primarily solitary animals, they have been sighted foraging together for short periods, especially in areas with plenty of food. There are a number of female ranges within a male’s range, and even those may overlap. They have communal latrines that are used by several animals within an area and, it’s believed, also serve as a form of communication. They scent-mark the latrines with a pungent secretion from their anal glands which, I can tell you from first-hand experience, has a truly unique odour. They have also been observed scent-marking beehives before opening them up, presumably to subdue the bees.
You might well think that honey badgers, as the name suggests, eat the honey from beehives, but it’s been well documented that they feed on the bee’s offspring, a prized delicacy. This creates many conflicts with bee farmers, who suffer thousands of rands in losses every year from predation on their apiaries. However, organisations like the Endangered Wildlife Trust and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have invested in finding cost-effective solutions to the conflict and promoting these solutions to the apiculturists. Some of these solutions include raising beehives off the ground, at an average cost of R20 per hive, which saves on the cost of illegally trapping the badgers while still having to put up with a 14% loss per annum. This is a cost-effective solution, so there’s no rational justification for the honey badgers to be killed.
Unfortunately these creatures are still being trapped and killed by humans. The most recent case was along the border fence in the West Coast National Park. A female honey badger was found alive by the park rangers, who enlisted the assistance of HOW Wildlife Rescue in order to extract her from the trap. The team decided to transport her to the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, who attended to her immediate medical requirements. Fortunately she will soon have recovered sufficiently to be released back into the West Coast National Park under the supervision of HOW Wildlife Rescue and SANParks. She’ll be fitted with a tracking device and closely monitored in order to establish her ability to adapt and have offspring, which is imperative to the conservation of the species. This rescue mission has fitted in well with a survey project involving other honey badgers in the area, which will give us much-needed insight into the conflict issues that still exist.
Even though these animals are the most formidable and fearless of creatures, they are still threatened, mainly due to hunting, habitat destruction and human/wildlife conflict issues. This leads me to question the saying, ‘So taai soos ’n ratel.’ They might be tough little critters, but evidently they’re not tough enough to withstand the ever-present human factor.
Sadly, the honey badger’s undeservedly negative reputation precedes it. Stories of malicious and aggressive attacks on humans have been around from time immemorial, but the reality is that these amazing creatures would rather hide from conflict than confront it, especially when humans are involved. Humans are the only species that displays true unfounded aggression; wild animals, generally speaking, act only defensively. Therefore if you are injured by a honey badger, it is likely to be due to disease, confusion or defence – that is, when a human is invading its space and making it feel uneasy. In cases like this, simple respect for the honey badger’s space will be your greatest defence. Tanya Heald is CEO of HOW Wildlife Rescue.
You can get involved and help address the plight of the honey badger. HOW Wildlife Rescue relies on funding, without which the vital work that they do is seriously limited. They can only make a difference with the support of generous funders. The costs of the research project are escalating rapidly, and HOW Wildlife Rescue is seeking financial assistance in order to make the most of this research opportunity. Any assistance will add value to the project and enable HOW to do even more than they initially set out to achieve. You can make an important difference to this near-threatened species.