The fearless Honey Badger...

I love quirky animals, and they don’t come much quirkier than the Honey Badger of Africa and Asia. For a start, it is neither a badger, nor does it primarily eat honey. So how did it get its name? European settlers thought that its colours of black below and a silvery grey above reminded them of the badger we all know, so that’s where the word badger originated. In actual fact, it is a Mustelidae, related to otters and weasels. Settlers also saw that it raided wild bee nests and assumed it was after the honey. Not so. It was apparently primarily after the bee’s brood but hey, we all make mistakes! The Afrikaans gave it another name of Ratel, this possibly coming from the rattle it gives during vocalization.

Albino Honey badger, photo taken at Ann Van Dykes. 'Its name was Blizzard'
Albino Honey badger, photo taken at Ann Van Dykes. 'Its name was Blizzard'. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021.

Now we know what it’s called, I hear you asking what it’s like. Well, according to my mammal books, it cannot be confused with any other species. It is about a metre long, 30cm in height, and can weigh up to 14kg. The Ratel is incredibly strong and solid, especially at the front end which it uses for digging, and its skin is really loose which means predators and humans find it impossible to grab. Its ears are enclosed in the loose skin, which has an opening which can be closed when it digs.

The Ratel has got a neat relationship with two birds. The Greater honeyguide lures it to a bees’ nest by calling to it. The Ratel then breaks open the nest for the brood and the bird eats the beeswax, eggs and larvae. Should the Ratel get stung by large numbers of bees it will die, so I wouldn’t imagine it hangs about! The other bird is the Pale Chanting Goshawk which follows the Ratel and eats any insects or reptiles the Ratel disturbs and doesn’t eat itself.

Most Honey Badgers are solitary although it’s not impossible to see two hunting together or playing, mating or fighting, possibly all at the same time! They have large home ranges with males travelling over 500sq km whilst females tend to stick to 100sq km. The dominant male will sire young from up to a dozen females in his home range, quite a busy boy!

So, what else makes the Ratel unique? Basically, it’s not frightened of anything. It will drive lion and leopard off prey, and occasionally will have a go at buffalo and elephant. It will eat anything from insects to snakes and even small crocodile and medium-sized mammals. Bee keepers regularly wage war on it. The Honey Badger even got a mention in the Guinness Book of Records, holding the title, “Most fearless animal in the World”. It will kill snakes and appears to be quite immune to their poison. Because of its fierce disposition, the Ratel has an infantry fighting vehicle in South Africa named after it.

I’ve only sighted the Honey badger in the wild twice and obtained precisely one photograph of it! Even though it is relatively common, it’s rarely seen because it tends to be nocturnal, especially during the summer months.

 a feeding honey badger lying on the groung while it eats a small rodent
Honey Badger eating. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

The first time I saw one was at a distance of about thirty metres. The guide took great delight in telling me that they would attack humans if cornered and that they always jumped for the groin and just held on, no matter what you did. He then waited for my reaction. I think I turned grey quite quickly and took the position of a soccer defender in a wall about to defend a free-kick. He seemed suitably amused. I’ve witnessed the same reaction with other male tourists who have been told about the Ratel by their mischievous guides. Indeed, in this respect, the Ratel achieved even more fame by being mentioned by Jeremy Clarkson in his Top Gear Special from Botswana. To roughly quote, “A Honey Badger does not kill you to eat you. It just tears off your testicles”. Very succinctly put Jeremy!

The Ratel is thus a creature held in awe throughout Africa. Myths are told and embellished and it has almost become a cult figure. My own favourite story was told to me by a guide called Aubrey in Zambia, and his fellow guides swore it was true. Their seasonal camp had an open-air bar. In fact, it was a plank wedged between the forks of two adjacent trees. On the plank were a range of drinks including a bottle of port. One night a Ratel shinned up the tree, bit through the cork and consumed the entire contents. It was found sleeping peacefully at the foot of the tree the next morning. The bar man was so annoyed that he picked up the Ratel by its stubby tail, swung it round in the manner of a Russian hammer thrower, released it, and watched as it sailed out into the bush. Landing with a thud, the creature awoke and, with a distinct hangover, lumbered off. I have no idea whether this story was true, but I do know that during our stay at the camp, we were awoken one night by the most fearful crashing and clanging of saucepans from the open air kitchen. The next morning the cook explained that breakfast would be late as a honey badger had raided the kitchen, eaten supplies and wrecked the place, so maybe it got its revenge.

In wildlife art, I have rarely seen Honey Badgers depicted in any form. They are such charismatic creatures that I know they would be a brilliant subject for an artist such as David Dancey-Wood, so here’s hoping he feels the urge to draw another weird and wacky animal, and that it turns out to be the holder of the title, “Most fearless animal in the World”.

In the meantime, if you want to see a Honey Badger in action, have a look at YouTube which has a whole section on them and in particular