"Honey Badger - Ferocity and Courage, with a Sweet Tooth"
The South Africans have a saying, "so taai soos a ratel," meaning, "as tough as a Honey Badger." Like a featherweight boxer who makes up for lack of size with speed and Napoleanic ferocity, the Honey Badger is well-equipped to live up to its fearsome reputation. It will attack any animal, no matter how big or dangerous its adversary. There appears to be no natural predators on adult ratels, which itself is evidence of how formidable this animal is, for it weighs scarcely more than a medium-sized dog. A Lion was recorded as having killed one, but there were signs of a terrific struggle; and according to naturalist and author, Jonathan Kingdon, three Ratels took a kill away from three sub-adult and four half-grown Lions.
The Honey Badger's courage is backed up by powerful jaws, knifelike front claws, and exceptionally tough and thick skin, almost 6mm thick at the neck. Its coat has been described as "hog-like," coarse and sparse, dark in color, with a skunk'ish, gray stripe from the forehead to the tail. It is broad and powerful, with stout, sturdy legs, and aided by exceptionally loose skin, the Ratel may twist its lithe body about to grab its assailant.
And woe betide the male assailant! According to folklore (and backed up by some circumstantial evidence), the Ratel goes for the scrotum when it attacks large animals (bull Buffalo, Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Kudu, Man) that offered real or imagined provocation. In the Kruger Park, adult male Buffalo, Gnu and Waterbuck have been found dead from loss of blood after ratels attacked them in the scrotum.
The Ratel's ferocious attitude is only equaled by its ferocious appetite for honey. Its genus name, Mellivora, is derived from "honey eater," its favored food during the rainy season. Its relationship with the Greater Honeyguide is remarkable, although somewhat inconclusive. Apparently the bird is well known for eliciting honey-hunters to follow it to hives, and the Honey Badger is the only animal other than man that regularly accepts the bird's invitation. The basis of the partnership is the Honeyguide's craving for wax and the Ratel's fondness for bee larvae and honey. Neither is dependent on the other for survival, or even to find or gain admittance to hives. The ratels probably find more nests with less effort with the help of the bird; and the Honeyguide finds many nests inaccessible without the assistance of the Honey Badger.
When a Greater Honeyguide sees a potential follower, in this case, a Ratel, it approaches within 10-15m and begins calling. Churring constantly, the drab bird fans its tail, displaying the white outer feathers. It swoops from tree to tree, until it alights near a hive and waits for the follower to find the bee's nest. According to witnesses, a Ratel in pursuit of a Honeyguide will answer it with a grunting, growling sound or a "slight sibilant hissing and chuckling."
The Ratel supposedly uses its protruding anal glands to fumigate bees and other biting insects before attacking their nests, in the same way a human will use smoke to subdue bees before harvesting honey. Backing up to the opening of the hive, the Ratel will rub its anal pouch all around, swirling its tail, sometimes performing handstands while releasing a profuse secretion with a suffocating odour. Beekeepers have described a sharp smell and found bees stupefied at one end of the hive after a ratel attack. Others have reported finding a number of dead bees. Its appetites have put it in conflict with African beekeepers, resulting in an initiative to promote understanding and tolerance between the two. For more information, check out www.honeybadger.com, and be sure to look for "badger friendly" products on your supermarket shelves.
The Ratel has a diverse diet, in addition to its appetite for honey and bee larvae. During the dry season, it will supplement its diet with insects, such as termites, beetles, ants, scorpions and spiders, as it is adept at digging and rooting out prey from underground nests. They have been seen foraging for estivating tortoises, turtles, frogs, fish, and any animals taking advantage of abandoned termite mounds, such as snakes, lizards and mongooses. Ratels have been observed killing mambas, dragging them out of holes and devouring them with complete unconcern, perhaps a benefit of their thick, impervious skin. A Honey Badger cannot pass a hole or cavity without exploring it, using its sense of smell, but also the Aardvark trick of blowing into it and listening for a response. They will also feed upon berries, fruit, carrion, and have been observed scaling trees to raid the nests of vultures.
Honey Badgers occur in Asia and Africa, but are found most frequently south of the Sahara. They are a rare sighting, as they tend to be primarily nocturnal. Most travel in pairs, but are often solitary, living in abandoned termite mounds or rodent dens. The average size for an adult ranges from 23-28cm in height, and about 96 cm in length. They definitely remain in the "featherweight" category, weighing in at a mere 12kgs.
&Beyond's Honey Badger Hotspots
Botswana's Okavango Delta, as in other parts of the Kalahari, offers wonderful opportunities for Honey Badger viewing. Visitors to Sandibe or Nxabega stand a good chance of seeing these pugnacious little carnivores on both day and night drives. Because of their propensity to scavenge, it is not uncommon to see Honey Badgers close to camps and lodges. In this regard, Ngala Lodge is frequently visited by a resident pair. Elsewhere on the &Beyond circuit, Honey Badgers are seen sporadically.
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006