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HONEY EATER

THE WORLD’S MOST FEARLESS ANIMAL

Words by Nicola Jayasundera

Belonging to the varied mustelid family that includes eight other badger species, otters, weasels and the wolverine, the infamous honey badger has been named as such because of its superficial resemblance to the Eurasian badger.

But these two species aren’t closely related and the honey badgers are the only representatives of a separate subfamily in which they’re the only species. Bearing more similarities to weasels (aka ratels), the honey badger is the only species in the mustelid subfamily Mellivorinae and its only genus Mellivora.

The honey badger is jet black except for the white-edged grey mantle that runs down its body extending from the crown to the tip of the tail. But this colour combination varies from one to another, and they often become darker with maturity and age.

Coarse hair that’s longer on the hind legs and tail covers the honey badger’s entire body. And their striking colouration makes them easy to recognise – in fact, they can only be confused with the smaller striped polecat and weasel.

With a distinct jog-trot, their height reaches 30 centimetres (cm) while lengths range from 78 cm to 102 cm. And the males are generally twice the size of the females. The honey badger’s claws may reach 40 millimetres in length while a powerful stocky build, a broad muscular back, bowlegged front legs and formidable fore claws are features that reflect a digging lifestyle.

Solitary carnivores, their thick rubbery skin protects them from arrows and spears. This also helps them escape from the jaws of predators while retaliating with their powerful teeth. Honey badgers are even resistant to venomous snakebites – at times, they’re able to sleep it off!

A generalist carnivore, the honey badger’s diet is more omnivorous. For instance, in the southern Kalahari alone, more than 60 species of prey can be found.

Their wide-ranging diet includes smaller food items (like insect larvae, beetles, scorpions, lizards, rodents and birds) to larger reptiles (such as monitor lizards, small crocodiles and pythons, as well as the highly venomous adders, cobras and black mambas). Even larger animals like the springhare and polecat – particularly juvenile foxes, jackals, antelope and wild cats – are part of their diet on occasion too.

And as their name suggests, the honey badger’s diet also includes honey although it’s the highly nutritious bee brood that appears on their radar. And while honey doesn’t play a major role in their diet, they go to great lengths to raid honeybee hives!

While they’re rarely seen drinking water, honey badgers source most of it from the food they consume and from the Tsamma melon.

The variety of habitats of honey badgers range from the dense rain forests of Zaire to the arid deserts on the outskirts of the Sahara and Pro-Namib; from sea level to the afro-alpine steppes in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia; and the semi-arid areas of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in India. Occasional sightings also occur in moist areas such as Orissa, West Bengal and Assam.

Classed as ‘Least Concern’ by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to its extensive range and general environmental adaptations, it’s nevertheless classified as ‘Near Threatened’ in South Africa and Morocco, endangered in Saudi Arabia and protected in India.

 

FACT FILE

Longevity                     Estimated five to eight years in the wild; 24 years in captivity

Social system              Solitary, polygynous – males may form small groups

Breeding season         Throughout the year

Litter size                     One cub (rarely two)

Activity                         Predominantly nocturnal

Predators                     Lion, leopard and man

 

THREATS

  • Bee-keepers, poultry and sheep farmers
  • Indirect persecution through indiscriminate poisoning and trapping for jackal and caracal
  • Hunted for their body parts (particularly paws, skin, fat and organs) for traditional medicine
  • Hunted as bush meat in Zambia

 

FUN FACTS

  • Mellivora capensis means ‘honey eater of The Cape’
  • Holds the Guinness World Records title of ‘World’s Most Fearless Creature’

DISTRIBUTION

With an extensive historical range extending through the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to southern Morocco and southwestern Algeria. Outside Africa, they can be found in Saudi Arabia, Iran, West Asia, Turkmenistan and the Indian peninsula.

 

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