Guests often ask tracker Life Sibuyi and I to list a few of our favourite animals and usually they recognize the more familiar names on the list, for example the leopard (Life’s favourite) or the African elephant to name a couple. There is, however, one animal on my list of favourites that many guests have never even heard of – the ever elusive honey badger.
These little creatures can be difficult to find and sightings of them are usually fleeting. Whenever I mention my fondness for the mysterious honey badger to my guests, their typical response is “Why?!”; a fair question considering we don’t usually get more than a brief glimpse into their secretive lives.
So, in light of the fact that honey badgers are relatively unknown, I have decided to compile a quick-fire list of reasons why I find them so fascinating.
1. They can live almost anywhere
Honey badgers are a rather successful species when it comes to their population size; they are listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in terms of facing extinction. They owe their success in large part to their ability to live in a wide array of habitats. One can find honey badgers from the Cape area of South Africa all the way up through the continent into the southern parts of Morocco. There are even honey badgers found in the Middle East and India! Although they prefer drier areas, the badgers are found close to the coast and into the forests in the Congo as well. There are accounts of them living high in the mountains of Ethiopia – over 3000 meters above sea level! Luckily, Londolozi happens to be situated right in the perfect habitat for a honey badger to thrive and that does increase our chances of getting to see one of them somewhat.
2. Honey badgers eat almost anything
Another reason for their success is their unfussy palate. A honey badger will eat almost any small animal that it can get its claws on. Their preferred food choices include delicacies such as scorpions, snakes, insect larvae, small rodents and, as the name suggests, honey. Honey badgers use their keen sense of smell to sniff out food and then they use their long claws and powerful legs to dig out their prized meal. Contrary to popular belief, honey badgers are not led to beehives by honey-guide birds in exchange for opening up the hive for the birds. Honey-guides will lead people to beehives, but there is no evidence of a badger-bird symbiotic relationship. Honey badgers won’t limit themselves to just honey and small animals; there are numerous accounts of them taking down young antelope and even killing animals as large as blue wildebeest and waterbuck. We even have reason to suspect that Honey Badgers killed the Mashaba female’s last litter.
The honey badger’s varied diet has equipped them with a menacing set of tools and a hardy temperament, which leads us nicely to our next point …
3. Honey badgers are tough!
Honey badgers are infamous for their toughness. The fact that their diet involves being stung by bees and dealing with venomous animals like snakes and scorpions means that honey badgers have developed a few adaptations to protect them. These nuggety little creatures are known to build up immunity to snake venom and there are many firsthand accounts of badgers being bitten by highly venomous snakes like puff-adders and cobras and surviving. Honey badgers also have a loose fitting skin that allows them to wriggle around within their skin to attack any predators that have managed to grab them. In addition to the loose fit, the skin is also very thick (6 mm in some places) which will prevent beestings and other sharp objects from piercing through. Not only do honey badgers take on venomous animals but, when threatened, the badgers will readily attack animals much larger than themselves. There are numerous stories of honey badgers being attacked by lions and leopards and coming out of the interaction alive and well after having scared off their attackers.
4. Honey badgers are intelligent
Although honey badgers are formidable fighters, it’s their ability to make good decisions that keeps them out of trouble most of the time. Honey badgers only turn to conflict as a last resort and usually choose to avoid danger instead. When they are threatened, they use a combination of a harsh rattling sound and foul smelling anal secretions to ward off would-be attackers. If they do turn to fighting, the crafty honey badgers are known for attacking the area between the back legs of their attacker – supposedly because the skin is soft with many blood vessels in that region. I have even heard of animals dying after having their scrotums bitten off by honey badgers.
On a less gory note, honey badgers also make use of tools to help them access food. They have been seen rolling logs into position to give them a little extra height to reach bird’s nests. Honey badgers in rehabilitation centres have been seen using all sorts of tools – from garden rakes to other honey badgers – to escape their enclosure.They will readily adapt their habits depending on the activity of other larger predators, therefore in some regions you can see badgers out in broad daylight whilst in others the badgers only come out when it is dark.
Should you be lucky enough to see what is hailed as Africa’s toughest animal, make sure enjoy the moment because as suddenly as they appear they’re off again, leaving you wondering if you did in fact manage to see the infamous honey badger.