The afternoon drive had been relatively quiet for ranger Pete Thorpe and I, when I noticed something poke its head around from behind a large dead Marula tree right on the edge of the road. It was a honey badger. We don’t often see them so when I shouted “Honey badger!”, Pete – who was on the tracker seat – was looking off in the distance for one disappearing into the grass. Usually it is only a fleeting glimpse of one that we have as they scurry away from the vehicle. However this badger, no further than 5 meters from the vehicle didn’t run off. But rather began scratching away at the bark of the tree.
My initial thoughts were that it was going after some form of prey encased in the tree. Shortly after we saw it it fell back and appeared to be sleeping. Being such resilient creatures they make short work of incredibly venomous snakes such as cobras. They are able to build up a resistance or immunity to the venom, where if bitten they are rather knocked unconscious for a while and then promptly resume their meal as soon as they come to. Instead of the bite being fatal as it is for most other animals.
I thought this might have been what we were witnessing. Pete with a better view realised that it was in fact stuck and rather feigning death, in the hopes that the supposed danger leaves it alone. Faced with this dilemma, and seeing how distressed the Honey badger was, I would never be able to forgive myself if I drove away knowing that it would be stuck there and most likely die that evening.
Digging it out wasn’t going to be simple. Honey badgers are probably the most aggressive animal here and don’t back down even against the largest, most fierce sets of teeth and claws. Getting close enough to be able to dig underneath it was not going to be easy. Even worse, what do we do when it gets free?
Pete had the brilliant idea of placing a blanket over the honey badger to try calm it down. It worked and allowed us to get a little closer, realising it was stuck in a hole between the roots and the ground. Using a stick, we would hold the honey badger out of the way so we could dig. Doing this for quite some time we then removed the blanket hoping it would be able to free itself. Utterly exhausted and in a lot of pain the honey badger was unable to. We were not going to give up on it until it was free.
From how much of the bark it had scratched off, we presumed it had been trapped for at least a day but possibly even longer. And would have been incredibly dehydrated; if we set it free the chances of it finding water soon were probably slim and it may not have survived. So we poured some into the shovel and from being such an aggressive little animal, it was no longer focused on us. It began lapping the water up as though we were not even there.
I couldn’t believe how much water it drank; probably close to a litre. For an animal that only weighs around 10kg or so, that is such a large volume to drink in one go, highlighting just how long it must have been trapped for. Once hydrated the honey badger had a new lease on life and gave us the motivation to keep on digging.
We got to a point where we had completely freed the back and rump of the honey badger. Digging any further would not help in any way. I was tempted to grab the honey badger by the nape of the neck and pull it free. However that is not a wise thing to do. Honey badgers bodies are very loose within their skin, allowing them to rotate around and lash out at any would-be danger grabbing them from behind. So instead we used the blanket as a ‘tug-rope’. Enticing the honey badger to grab hold of it with its claws and biting onto it, we could try pull it free. Eventually on our third attempt the honey badger came free and sent me and Pete diving for the vehicle. Honey badgers’ reputations led us to believe that it would go after us as soon as it was free.
This was not the case at all. As we fled, the blanket fell over the badger slowing its escape. It slowly crawled out and as it found its feet it stumbled down the road. Initially its legs were a little wobbly, which is understandable given it had been trapped in a small hole for so long. Stiff and having been deprived of a fresh supply of blood, they seemed to recover once it was able to move them. Hydrated and free it trotted away until we could no longer see it.
I am incredibly grateful that I played a part in helping this honey badger. It seems fortuitous that we chose to drive that road and had everything we needed to get the job done. But something else meant a lot more to me. The honey badger started off completely belligerent towards us. But over the course of the rescue its temperament changed drastically. Whether it was so physically exhausted that it simply couldn’t keep up the aggressive facade, or, it had figured we were not there to harm it and had built a bit of trust. Either way we will never know but I like to believe the latter.