Column: Lessons from The Honey Badger


By Jim Knox

There are few animals that garner internet celebrity on the scale of the Honey Badger. So, is all the online hype deserved? What exactly is a Honey Badger and more importantly, where does the real creature end and the fictional beast begin? The Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) is a modest-sized member of the weasel or Mustelidae family, averaging just two and a half feet in length and twenty five pounds in weight. While it owes its named to its fondness for honey and protein-rich bee brood, that’s where the sweetness abruptly ends.

Compact and muscular with a thick, leathery hide, long claws, anal spray gland and disproportionately powerful jaws, the Honey Badger is designed for life on the offensive.  Ranging from Africa to the Middle East, India and western Asia, this black and white, short-furred carnivore routinely crosses paths with the “Who’s Who” of the predatory elite.  Encountering African Lions, Cape Leopards, Spotted Hyenas, Rock Pythons, Nile Crocodiles, Martial Eagles, Gray Wolves, Bengal Tigers and Sloth Bears, the Honey Badger holds its own quite handily. How does it go toe-to-toe with these mega predators? It does so by projecting a larger-than-life presence.

This strategy serves the Honey Badger remarkably well, enabling it to thrive in diverse habitats and successfully compete against the world’s apex predators across multiple continents. The badger’s achievements are the stuff of legend. They are credited with: sporting bullet-proof hides, killing adult male lions and invulnerability to the world’s deadliest snakes—including the feared Black Mamba! Other alleged badger feats include: biting cleanly through steel traps, battling leopards head-to-head and shrugging off the effects of scorpion stings.

Also known as Ratel, likely from an Afrikaans word for rattling, referring to its tooth-snapping growls, this carnivore’s carnivore is renowned for its sheer, unrivaled toughness. So tough in fact, the South African Army has bestowed the name of Ratel on its Armored Personnel Carriers.  Like its namesake, it is no ordinary creation. This Infantry Fighting Vehicle is equipped with 6×6 drive configuration and an armored steel hull specially designed to withstand devastating land mine damage. If needed, the Ratel can travel over all terrain with two wheels missing. It boasts formidable offensive capabilities as well, with configurations featuring anti-tank cannon weaponry. All of this firepower—inspired by a mammal the size of a terrier. Given this resume of ferocity under its belt, it’s not surprising the Guinness Book of Records has described the Honey Badger as, “The World’s Most Fearless Animal.”

With such a reputation, a layperson’s legend spawns a scientist’s conundrum. With expansive ranges, semi-nomadic nocturnal habits, low population densities and perpetual foraging tendencies, the creature is notoriously hard to observe. To coax the true beast out from the shadows of myth into the light of day requires rigorous research, years in the bush, and an extra helping of plain old luck. The sum of these factors has yielded findings which are nearly as extraordinary as the legends. Badgers have been documented: defending home ranges of nearly two hundred square miles (more than twice the area of Martha’s Vineyard), fighting off prides of lions, stealing Steenbok Antelope from Brown Hyenas, preying upon Nile Crocodiles larger than themselves, as well as 10-foot-long African Rock Pythons, and withstanding envenomation from more than 300 bee stings! With this partial list of exploits, the Honey badger seems determined to exceed even its own hype.

The synergy of multiple physical and behavioral adaptations enables the badger to achieve these feats. Its aposematic or warning coloration of contrasting black and white, gives fellow creatures bold warning of its on-demand chemical attack. With a range of up to twenty feet, the badger’s anal gland defense can temporarily blind an adversary, burning its nose and mouth with clinging, acrid spray. It’s low-slung, densely-muscled design minimizes opportunities of attack to its relatively vulnerable ventral side or belly. If a predator does hazard a risk—and I do emphasize the risk here—of seizing the badger within its jaws, the badger has an anatomical trick up its sleeve. The animal’s skin is extremely thick (approximately ¼ inch), and both exceptionally leathery and loose. This results in a bodily covering which can thwart most teeth (not to mention claws, quills, stingers, fangs and talons). When mouth meets badger, badger instantaneously spins to latch onto its aggressor with a clamping grip of stout canines. Vulnerable eyes, vascular lips, tongues and noses, packed with nerve endings, are all within striking range.

Underlying these prodigious physical traits is the badger’s mythic behavioral mode. Consider it a strategy of savagery. While many creatures settle for survival, the badger seems to demand dominance, or least, vigilant respect. Rather than bypass larger adversaries or potential challenges, the Honey Badger often courts these situations as opportunities to exploit. Lions, leopards, wolves and tigers are dominant predators. Such beasts are unaccustomed to other creatures—let alone creatures a fraction of their bulk—standing their ground or advancing on them. Mega predators are often confused by such behaviors…and when the badger launches its all-out, snarling, slashing, lunging offense, it further unsettles the top tier carnivores. Though the badger may ultimately forfeit its life, it will engage the mega predator. While the big carnivore may prevail, it may come at the cost of a wound or paw injury which hampers it sufficiently that it loses its keen edge in the hunt or within the dominance structure of its society. This is indeed a risk it will often avoid. Leopards are one of the badger’s few known predators and even they only target young, old, sick or injured badgers. Predator confrontations yield opportunities for the badger to project its presence, assert its dominance, make an escape or secure a hard-won meal. Ultimately, what the Honey Badger is doing, is forcing its competitors to favor its strengths by playing its game by its rules.

The badger is nature’s equivalent of a street fighter—an in-your-face, no-holds-barred brawler who will bloody you regardless of the outcome. What’s more, other animals seem to recognize this, and regardless of the mismatch, often give the black and white dynamo with the skunk-spray power a very wide berth. Such armament coupled with the badger’s Blitzkrieg offense is simply potent. While the badger’s strategy of savagery is imposing, it further possesses a covert weapon which has long been concealed from science, and it is striking.

Countless generations of indigenous people have long described their intelligence through anecdote. Tales abound. Accounts include: Honey Badgers chewing down saplings to manipulate them to access kingfisher nests with chicks, aiming their rectum toward a targeted breeze to enhance the speed and range of their spray toward an enemy and prying open latches to gain access to domestic stock. These are just a sampling of the more calculating feats ascribed to the creature. It seems that the badger’s brawn and bravado in battle have entirely eclipsed an aspect of its fundamental makeup which makes the already imposing badger an even greater adversary. We now know that Honey badgers are more than mere fighting, biting machines. There’s an equally powerful brain driving that powerful body. It’s a nimble brain…an inventive brain.

Given its daunting ferocity, game-changing offensive strategies and uncanny problem-solving abilities, the bone and sinew badger stares down its internet ego without blinking and introduces us to a creature all the more remarkable when stripped of its folkloric guise.

Quote: “Encountering: African Lions, Cape Leopards, Spotted Hyenas, Rock Pythons, Nile Crocodiles, Martial Eagles, Gray Wolves, Bengal Tigers and Sloth Bears, the Honey Badger holds its own quite handily.”

As the Writer and Host for PBS television’s Wild Zoofari, Jim Knox has shared his knowledge of, and passion for wildlife with millions of viewers throughout the U.S., Russia, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe on Animal Planet. Jim has served as an on-camera wildlife expert for The Today Show, The CBS Early Show and Fox News and he has been featured in The New York Times.

Jim currently serves as the Curator of Education at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo where he directs Education and Wildlife Conservation programs.  Jim is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied Animal Science.  He has studied rhinos, lions and Great White Sharks in South Africa, conducted field research for Alaskan Brown Bears, field conservation for Atlantic Salmon and written nationally for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A TED Speaker, as well as a corporate and keynote presenter, Jim enjoys helping audiences to understand and learn from wildlife and teaching them how to put those lessons into practice in their everyday life.

Jim is the Co-Creator of The Conservation Discovery Corps. He has presented to The Harvard College Conservation Society, lectures for the University of Connecticut, serves as a Science Advisor for The Bruce Museum of Greenwich, and now a columnist for the Greenwich Sentinel.

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