Derivation of scientific name: Even though primarily a carnivore/insectivore, honey badgers search out honeybee hives, hence their English common name.
Honey badger (Eng.); ratel (Afr.); xidzidzi (Xitsonga); tshiselele (TshiVenda); ulinda (Ndebele); matshwane, magôgô, magôgwê, magwagwê (Setswana); sere, tsere (Shona), insele (siSwati, isiZulu).
The honey badger, also known as ratel, was named the ‘most fearless animal in the world’ in the 2002 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. Its tenacity, endurance and wit resulted in it getting this world-renowned title. The word ‘honey’ embedded in their common name implies a love of bee honey, even though they are primarily carnivorous and insectivorous and actually consumes the bee larvae within the beehive instead of solely searching out the honey.
Description/How to recognize
Honey badgers are terrestrial, quadrupedal animals with a cylindrical body that can be approximately 60–70 cm long. Their forefeet are long and broad, they have powerful claws that are used for digging and climbing. In contrast, the hind legs have smaller, constrained claws. They stand at a height of approximately 25–30cm at the shoulders (Macdonald 2005).
The exterior is characterised by fur with a coarse, dorsal grey mantle patch that extends from the top of the head (crown) to the tip of the tail. A white horizontal line on each side of the body separates the white coarse mantle from the black ventral fur. The white margins at the base of the head form a concave line across the base of the badger that extends from the forehead, which is approximately 12–15mm above the corner of the eyes, and runs to the upper margins of the ears. Honey badgers have deep-set, small, longsighted eyes, which are black and usually reflects light at night (Jeannin 1936).
The tail is short and bushy with two anal glands on the posterior end. The two glands are diagonal from the anus and in male badgers it is surrounded by tissue near the scrotum. These glands are used for the secretion of a yellow fluid released when the honey badger is excited (Kingdon 1997), or used as a defence mechanism when threatened and for terrestrial marking (Begg et al. 2003).
Their skin is thick, tough and loose, allowing the honey badger to twist and escape from the grip of their attacker. Furthermore, it also allows the honey badger to manoeuvre in tight spaces, and provides protection against bites from predators (Rosevaar 1974). Honey badgers are predominantly a nocturnal species, however, during cold dry months they switch to being diurnal. Males are mostly solitary as compared to females seen foraging with their cubs in their early months. During mating season they are seen hunting in pairs.
Due to their short limbs and long fore claws, honey badgers are not fast runners. Their slow nature and swinging run can be compared to that of bears (Sikes 1963). When foraging honey badgers run, their nose is held a few centimetres from the ground as they explore their surrounding with their sense of smell, and their tail is usually elevated. Foraging differs amongst females and males, with females covering a relatively smaller area at approximately 10 km per day. They forage in a zigzag pattern, from one bush to another, digging up to ten holes per kilometre. Males on the other hand travel long distances covering approximately 27 km per day and only digging an estimate of two holes per kilometre (Kruuk & Mills 1983).
The sound that honey badgers produce is guttural (harsh-sounding or rough) described as a high-pitched screaming bark or ‘haarr-haarr’ (Smithers 1983). During mating season, the males produce a loud muttering sound to attract their female counter-part (Heptner & Sludskii 2002). Vocalisation during the interaction with larger carnivores is a different tone and frequency, which comes out as a rattling roar. Juveniles produce a slightly faint pitch whine and when in distress they make hiccup sounds (Kingdon 1997). Interestingly, since the male home range can extend to 500 km2 they use scent-markings for an open communication with other badgers.
The honey badger has a wide, extensive historical distribution range, which extends through most of sub-Saharan Africa. It occurs from the Western Cape to southern Morocco and south western Algeria. In addition, it also occurs in Arabia, Iran and western Asia, as well as the Indian peninsula (Proulx et al. 2016). In South Africa it is widely distributed in all provinces except the Free State. The area of occupancy does not stretch to the northwestern coastal areas. The home range of female honey badgers is highly dependent on the availability of food and males are influenced by the accessibility of females within a definite range.
The species lives in a wide variety of habitats type, but they are generally absent from more open and central parts of the grassland and Nama Karoo biomes. Their preferred habitat is mainly in dry areas, but as mentioned above it can also found in grasslands and forests. Their long fore claws are used to dig burrows that can be 3 meters long and approximately 1.5 metres deep. These tunnels or chambers are used as a resting place for the honey badgers. Honey badgers are habitat generalists as they can create homes with anything readily available such as under exposed tree roots, rock cracks/gaps, and old uninhabited termite mound. Since they are fearless creatures they sometimes take over burrows dug out by yellow mongoose, springhares, Cape foxes and bat-eared foxes.
Rooted in their name ‘honey’ badger, many people mistakenly believes that honey badgers eat honey, while in fact they raid beehives in search for bee larvae, causing conflict with bee farmers. The Greater Honeyguide birds have an opportunistic relationship with honey badgers as it has been observed to feed on the scraps from the bee hives left behind by the honey badgers (Begg et al 2003a).
Field guide information suggests that the honey badger is a generalist species and an opportunistic predator, its diet consists of a wide range of prey (Kruuk & Mills 1983). Thus, their diet is prone to be influenced by seasonal variation as it has been observed that the honey badger switches between prey species, highly dependent on the prey abundance (Taylor 1984) and/or readily available food resources. Small mammals form the base of the honey badgers’ diet and when small mammals are less abundant and there is an increase in the search time for small mammal prey due to the decrease in abundance, the honey badger’s diet switches to less profitable small reptiles and scorpions (Begg et al. 2003). A study conducted at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park reported that although previously suggested that honey badgers are omnivorous species, observations proved that they switched to consuming fruit such as tsamma melons mainly to obtain moisture in a highly water-scarce environment rather than use it as a food source. The species is considered to be a mainly carnivorous species, as they were mostly observed to consume small invertebrates and vertebrates (Begg, 2006).
Successful foraging and locating prey are through the use of their sense of smell. Even when well fed, honey badgers search for food on a daily basis, which cause some experts to label them as wasteful foragers. They search for prey in previously marked scent trails, within burrows and smell by lifting their noses up in the air, in the direction of the scent (Begg 2006). Using their long fore claws they trap their prey inside the burrows by barricading the entrance and digging with its hind paws another entrance to catch the prey. Honey badgers are resilient and not quick to tire, and using the strategy of exhaustion, they often target larger prey by tiring them out with relentless ‘badgering’ (Begg, 2006).
SEX and LIFE CYCLES
The species mates throughout the year (Yaniv & Golani 1987) and have no seasonal preference has been observed. They demonstrate high levels of polygamy (having more than one mate), which usually lasts for about two weeks and males are highly systematic in their approach. They maximise their breeding frequency by sharing the same movement range with the females and by moving faster than females as they cover larger areas, having at least 13 female mates in their area of occupancy. Similarly, females are also polygamous as they can mate with multiple males when they are receptive, but they do not reproduce each year. Competing for receptive females occurs within the burrows, their encounters consisting of scent-marking demonstrating their hierarchical social structures (usually between sexually mature males). Unlike mature males, young males are mainly influenced by availability of food and then by the frequency of receptive females.
Sexual maturity is not well known, but experts suggests that for males it is approximately two to three years of age, and for females it is 12–16 months; indicating that male sexual maturity is reached at a later stage when they are fully independent whereas females disperse immediately upon independence (Begg et al. 2005). The gestation (development of foetus) period was previously recorded from six weeks to approximately six months (Yaniv & Golani 1987; Shortridge 1934). Females usually carry one or two young per term.
Honey badgers are uniparental, the female is the only parent responsible for the young cubs. When the young (den cubs) are born, they are reared in the females burrow and when the mother forages for prey they usually carry their young in the mouth (Rosevear 1974). The cubs are fully developed by the third month with the presence of the white mantle/pelage clearly defined. Claws are fully formed within four weeks and eyes are fully opened at approximately 33 days. Teeth start appearing around 36 days and are fully developed at approximately three months (Kingdon 1997). Cubs remain with their mother for a period of 12–16 months before they reach maturity and have well developed hunting, climbing as well as proficient digging skills. The period of maturity of the cub is critical, as mortality rate has been estimated at 47% amongst honey badgers, which is largely caused by starvation or predation (Begg 2006).
THE BIG PICTURE
Friends and Foes
Honey badgers provide a useful ecosystem service in agriculture because they feed extensively on rodents and arthropods who are considered to be agricultural pests (Smithers 1971; Begg et al. 2003a). However, they are also considered to be a pest by many beekeepers. Beehive damage by honey badgers is a significant threat to beekeeping productivity. Persecution of honey badgers by beekeepers has been recorded since the early 1800s. Begg (2001b) found that the honey badgers caused damage with a monetary value of about R500 000 per annum in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga alone. It was estimated that damage caused by honey badgers accounts for a loss of about 7% per season for beekeepers in the Western Cape (Smithers 1986). Beekeepers retaliate by shooting, poisoning and gin trapping honey badgers, accelerating the rate of population decline. However, it is quite easy for beekeepers to simply raise their bee hives to a few metres above the ground so that honey badgers cannot easily reach it, a practice that have resulted in a decline in honey badger damage to bee hives of about 66% between 2001 and 2009 (Kriel 2019). Informed consumers and environmentally conscious retailers such as Woolworths insist on only buying/selling honey that have earned the ‘badger-friendly’ designation, which can be displayed in the form of a logo on the packaging of honey produced by beekeepers using badger-friendly beekeeping methods.
Since honey badgers are scavengers, they are also indirectly killed through poisoning. Furthermore, honey badgers are also indirectly killed by control programmes targeting other species such as black-backed jackals and caracal. The killing of the honey badgers and reduction to the population size was also influenced by harvest for use in traditional medicine. The species is used in the preparation of remedies used as protective charm for possessors and hunting dogs.
Honey badgers are equipped with large scent glands that play a role in territorial marking and also used a defence mechanism (Carter 2017). Females rarely interact with each other, thus demonstrate unrestrained terrestrial behaviour in protecting their territory by urinating in previously foraged area. Males, having a larger area of occupancy or home range, signify inter-sexual territory since they share overlapping ranges with females. Honey badgers have tough, loose skin allowing them to free themselves from predators and to also manoeuvre through small spaces.
Poorer world without me
Honey badgers contribute a provisioning service to the environment in that they help regulate agricultural pests such as rodents and arthropods by being generalist feeders (Smithers 1971; Begg et al. 2003a), and thereby positively influencing a slight increase in agricultural production.
Conservation status and what the future holds
In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed and listed the honey badger as Near Threatned (NT) due to the increased habitat loss and fragmentation within the interior of South Africa, which influenced the high level of population decline (Begg & Begg 2003).Currently, this species is listed as Least Concern (LC) on the global assessment (Do Linh San et al. 2016) based on its wide distribution and the insufficient data substantiating the decrease in population size. Threats that are facing the species included persecution by beekeepers, unintentional poisoning and hunting for both bush meat and traditional medicine use (Carter 2017). Increasingly, honey badgers are being hunted as trophies. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) data illustrates that approximately 16 trophy animals were exported from South Africa between 2002 and 2012 on average. The lack of legislation enforcement for the protection of the species and high number of honey badgers reported to have been killed by beekeepers in particular has led to Botswana and Ghana, the only two countries, to list the honey badgers as an Appendix III species on the CITES list making it mandatory to have a permit for export and import of the species.
The listing has influenced two successful programmes:
- The Badger-Beekeeper Extension Programme (BBEP), which aimed to educate beekeepers on taking operative measures for the protection of beehives, honey badgers thereby creating public awareness (Isham et al. 2005).
- The Badger Friendly Label (BFL), which aimed to assist the beekeepers in ways to elevating the apiaries above the ground and using non-lethal control methods on the apiaries thereby preventing honey badgers from destroying the honey bee apiaries. The badger friendly label on packaging also allow consumers the choice to support beekeepers who use badger friendly beekeeping methods.
The combination of a single offspring, late sexual maturity and long birthing interval affects population propagation and the survival of honey badgers by having a special significance in the success of conservation programmes (Begg 2006).
The honey badger belongs to the weasel family (Scientific name: Mustelidae), related to species such as skunks (Genus: Mephitis), otters (Genus: Ictonyx), ferrets (Genus: Mustela), and other badgers.
Official Common Name: Honey badger
Scientific Name and Classification:
Species: M. capensis (Schreber, 1776)
References and further reading
- Begg, K. S. 2001b. Report on the conflict between beekeepers and honey badgers, Mellivora capensis, with reference to their conservation status and distribution in South Africa. Endangered Wildlife Trust, Johannesburg, South Africa
- Begg, K.S. & Begg, C.M. 2002. The conflict between beekeepers and honey badgers in South Africa; a Western Cape perspective. Open Country, 4, pp. 25–37.
- Begg, C.M., Begg, K.S., Du Toit, J.T. & Mills, M.G.L. 2003a. Scent-marking behaviour of the honey badger, Mellivora capensis (Mustelidae), in the southern Kalahari. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347203922238?via%3Dihub
- Begg, C. & Begg, K. 2003. The honey badger: Conserving ‘the most fearless animal in the world’. Science in Africa, Science magazine for Africa CC.
- Begg, C.M., Begg, K.S., Du Toit, J.T. & Mills, M.G.L. 2003a. Sexual and seasonal variation in the diet and foraging behaviour of a sexually dimorphic carnivore, the honey badger (Mellivora capensis). Journal of Zoology 260(3): 301–316.
- Begg, C.M., Begg, K.S., Du Toit, J.T. & Mills, M.G.L. 2005. Spatial organization of the honey badger, Mellivora capensis, in the southern Kalahari: home-range size and movement patterns. Journal of Zoology, 265(1): 23–35.
- Begg, C.M. 2006. Feeding ecology and social organisation of honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) in the southern Kalahari. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria.
- Carter, S., Du Plessis, T., Chwalibog, A. & Sawosz, E. 2017. The honey badger in South Africa: biology and conservation. International Journal of Avian & Wildlife Biology 2(2): pp.4.
- Do Linh San, E., Begg, C., Begg, K. & Abramov, A.V., 2016. Mellivora capensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e. T41629A45210107.
- Accessed on the 21 September 2019: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T41629A45210107.en.
- Heptner, V.G. & Sludskii, A.A. 2002. Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation.
- Isham J, Begg K.S, Begg CM. 2005. Honey badger and beekeeper extension programme. Final Report. Carnivore Conservation Group, Endangered Wildlife Trust.
- Jeannin, A. 1936. The wild mammals of Cameroon. Paul Lechevalier, Paris, France
- Kingdon, J.S. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, London, UK.
- Kriel, G. 2019. Identification of Honey Badger – Predation Management in Livestock Farming. Internet 1 pp. http://southafrica.co.za/identification-honey-badger.html
- Kruuk, H. & Mills, M.L. 1983. Notes on food and foraging of the honey badger Mellivora capensis in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. Koedoe 26(1): 153–157.
- Macdonald, D.W. 2007. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, UK
- Proulx, G., Abramov, A.V., Adams, I., Jennings, A., Khorozyan, I., Rosalino, L.M., Santos-Reis, M., Veron, G. & Do Linh San, E. 2016. World distribution and status of badgers–A review. Badgers: Systematics, Biology, Conservation and Research Techniques. Alpha Wildlife Publications, Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada, pp.31-116.
- Rosevear, D.R. 1974. The Carnivores of West Africa. London: British Museum, Natural History, pp. 548
- Shortridge, G.C., 1934. The mammals of South West Africa: a biological account of the forms occurring in that region. William Heinemann Ltd., London, United Kingdom, 1, pp. 1–437.
- Smithers, R.H. 1971. The mammals of Botswana. Museum Memoir No. 4. The Trustees of the National Museums of Rhodesia, Salisbury.
- Smithers, R.H. 1986. South African red data book-terrestrial mammals. National Scientific Programmes, CSIR
- Yaniv, Y.O.N.A. & Golani, I. 1987. Superiority and inferiority: A morphological analysis of free and stimulus bound behaviour in honey badger (Mellivora capensis) interactions. Ethology 74(2): 89–116.
Author: Lerato Molekoa
WWF Intern: Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW)
Zwelakhe Zondi (Scientific Authority technician)