by Tim Corfield The Honey Badger

All of us guides have come across honey badgers whilst out on game drives, and many a guest doesn’t understand why we get so excited about them, especially as many a sighting is just a fleeting glimpse. Telling them that this is widely rated as the world’s most ferocious animal doesn’t mean much at that point.

But sometimes there is a steep learning curve, as when I tried to follow one with some Disney Imagineers on board, and with a guttural snarl the little monster veered back to my vehicle and savaged the rear tire! My eager guests tumbled back into the car from the roof hatch. An awed silence was quickly followed by raucous cheers. They couldn’t believe it – and couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the trip.

In my early days as a research student a persistent honey badger kept on night raiding the kitchen in search of food. And on more than one occasion my then wife and I nearly bumped into him returning to our tent in the dark. When he fell into a deep dug rubbish pit I decided to give him a lesson, and tried to smack him with a long pole. I connected but he merely attacked the pole with that vicious guttural snarl. I took the hint that he was going to stay. He did, and we had to tolerate his raids.

I should have been more subtle. A friend of mine here in Tanzania learned to befriend a female and her cubs while supervising the building of a lodge in Ruaha National Park. He tolerated her visits to his tent and I have seen his video of a cub wrestling to open a coca-cola bottle, and of himself stroking the mother as she lay beside him on his camp cot.

So who is this fascinating beast?

Well, why not start by watching the popular YouTube video on honey badgers ‘Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger’? Over 95 million have so believe me – it’s worth it.

But beyond the joking the honey badger really is one of the most interesting animals out there, and so let’s delve a bit deeper.

Besides being called crazy nastyass, the honey badger has also been named an indomitable unhinged aggressor, persistent, relentless, the world’s most ferocious animal, and a lot else besides. Yet there is my own story of people stroking and befriending them – completely wild individuals – with every sign that they’re loving it. Other folk have made friends with honey badgers but in these interactions there is something different from most animals. There is no fawning, no deference, no subservience. Absolutely none. They interact with you totally on their terms, without hostility – and crucially without any sign of fear.

This is perhaps the defining characteristic of the honey badger (also called Ratel). Small though it be – about the size of a small dog – this tough little character is utterly and completely fearless. In fact, The Guinness Book of Records has rated it the bravest animal on earth, and the media is replete with verifiable accounts of the honey badger taking on lions, leopards, buffalo, snakes, humans – and the wheels of my Land Rover!

And yet this animal is not all brawn and no brain. It is intelligent; really intelligent. But more about this later.

In terms of where they fit in the animal kingdom they are Mustelids. Mustelids are carnivorous mammals and are closely related to weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, and wolverines amongst others, and are more distantly related to skunks, civets, mongooses and even hyenas. Mustelids all tend to have longish low slung bodies, powerful scent glands under their tails, and all have no-nonsense, pugnacious temperaments.

Adult honey badgers are about the size of a Jack Russel terrier but more low slung and massive; and males are almost twice as heavy as females. All have really thick, but very loose skin and their coloration is a very distinctive black and white combo. This is classic warning coloration. Aggressors should steer clear because in any attempt to grab a honey badger the beast can turn within its loose, tough skin and savage the attacker with vice like jaws. And to cap it all they have an anal gland that emits an utterly suffocating and evil smelling paste!

Excepting a strong mother cub relationship, honey badgers are loners who only team up to mate. They roam vast areas, loping along as far as 15 – 20 miles in 24 hours, mostly at night, in an endless forage for food. They eat almost anything – rodents, snakes, lizards, fruit, berries, tubers, insects, worms, and have a special liking for honey and bee larvae, and don’t care about bee stings or even snake bites to get and eat what they want.

They dig for food, climb trees, and even actively hunt. Almost anything goes. And when tired, will scoop a temporary burrow in the ground, a termite mound or even a tree stump to curl up and rest.

Finally let’s touch on honey badger intelligence and ingenuity. Whether it is their larger brain to body weight ratio than most mammals or something else, they are amongst the most intelligent beings on earth. Honey badgers are members of that exclusive club who, besides sheer intelligence, will use tools to solve problems. Like the one who figured out how to open a gate latch bolt to escape his pen, or moved stones to make a stairway out, and another time positioned a branch to make a ladder to freedom. Or the female honey badger who out maneuvered a leopard to steal its prey.

The stories are many, and this sturdy little warrior will continue to entertain us for years to come. And so, on your next game drive just bear with your guide if he or she seems over eager to spend time looking for and watching honey badgers. And when you find one enjoy the moment: but don’t waste too much emotion. The beast won’t give a damn whether we like him or not. Just stay out of its way.

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