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How The Fearless Honeybadger Earned Its Reputation

Images and post courtesy of Wilderness Safaris.

The mid-morning air had a nip to it in the middle of winter at Deception Pan, deep in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. As the pride of lions lay snoozing in the sun, another creature was busying himself foraging for food. Normally honey badgers are nocturnal but during the nippy winter mornings in the Kalahari, honey badgers will venture out in the day, looking for snacks to keep their high metabolism ticking over. As the badger trundled past the pride, the majority raised their heads for a look, but knew better than to tangle with the toughest kid in the Kalahari. Three sub-adults took a keen interest though and pounced after the badger. The confident cats were quickly turned into a tangle of tawny retreat as the honey badger didn’t take kindly to their attentions and with his tail raised, charged, rasping and hissing into the melee.

The honey badger’s reputation as the “bush bouncer” and all round tough guy certainly is well founded. It’s no coincidence that the South African military named their toughest armoured vehicle after the Afrikaans word for honey badger, “ratel”. Honey badgers certainly have an “offense is the best defence” outlook on life but there are some unique adaptations that really do prove that “honey badger don’t care”.

Nature has an interesting way of warning you not to touch. The distinct black and white colouration is the first clue that you shouldn’t be messing around with this mustelid. Just like the skunk, who also wears a bicolour tuxedo, the honey badger can emit a rancid smell from his reversible anal pouches when under pressure.

honeybadger don't care

It’s not only the colour of the coat, but its thick, bristles which form the perfect protection from bee stings. As denoted by its name, the honey badger loves honey and this thick, coarse coat is the perfect sting stopper. The coat is only part of the defensive arsenal though; honey badgers have a very thick but also loose fitting skin. This allows them to turn inside their own skin if attacked. There is no safe place to hold onto a honey badger, even the scruff of the neck is no place to be. Once the badger has turned in his skin he can bring out the big guns – short, stocky and strong legs with inch-long claws. Normally used for digging for rodents and other prey, these powerful claws will make a mess of any would-be attacker.

As if the claws weren’t enough, honey badgers have extremely powerful jaws that allow them to chomp down on and eat just about anything. They will crunch through bones of carrion and feast on anything from termites to cooler boxes and will happily kill and eat some of the most venomous snakes in Africa. Like many of the mustelids, they are able to metabolise the protein compounds (through glycosylation) in the venom; this allows them to be bitten by venomous snakes, yet remain unaffected.

Combine all of these factors with the honey badger’s high intelligence and it’s no wonder the Guinness Book of World Records has them listed as the most fearless animal in the world.

As an aside if you’re looking for a honey badger fix, Kalahari Plains Camp is one of the best places to find them, especially during the colder months from June through August. Although predominantly nocturnal, at this time of the year they’ll often be bustling about during the morning, when temperatures are cooler, digging for various prey. What often look like small “bush” fires are actually honey badgers digging through the dirt. This can often be verified by looking for the pale chanting goshawks that follow the foraging badgers, hoping to steal any prey they flush.

Written and Photographed by Craig Glatthaar, Wilderness Safaris Blog Contributor. This article has been reposted in partnership with Wilderness Safaris. See the original here.