Most South Africans would be able to recognise the iconic Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis). We share many of its characteristics as we are both resilient, hell-bent on survival and definitely don’t back down when forced into a corner. We resonate with this headstrong animal, but upon closer examination, under that protective layer of skin both the Honey Badger and we South Africans can be quite cute and cuddly.
The Honey Badger is a truly amazing and unique animal, but did you know it’s not even a Badger at all? In fact it has a lot more in common with a giant Weasel. They are the only animal in the Mellivorinae genus, which in turn is a subfamily of the Mustelinae genus. Another member of the Mustelinae family with an equally notorious reputation is the Wolverine, one of the most mystical and dangerous of all living creatures.
The Honey Badger’s “real” name Mellivora capensis tells us a bit more about our subject when we translate the Latin to English: Mellivora = Honey-eater, capensis = of the Cape. Just like the badger part of its name is a bit misleading, so also is the phrase “of the Cape”. There are in fact 12 honey badger subspecies – all of these have Mellivora capensis in their name, but only one actually inhabits the Cape. The others range all the way up through Africa and into the Middle East and as far east as India. For example, there is Mellivora capensis buechneri, a Honey Badger that calls Turkmenistan its home, and Mellivora capensis leuconota which is native to West Africa where it goes by the name White-backed Ratel. Other subspecies are native to places as diverse as Nepal, Iraq, Sierra Leone and the Congo. Whilst the “from the Cape” is not a certainty, one thing is for sure: no matter where you find Honey Badger, they’ll command a healthy level of respect and sometimes generate fear from the local cultural groups.
The name Ratel as it’s known in Afrikaans and in other areas of Africa has also got its own hidden meaning. Some say Ratel is derived from the Dutch word for honeycomb, i.e. Raat. As the various names and translations suggest, Honey Badgers eat honey. But this in itself is not entirely true as Honey Badgers are by no means the Winnie the Pooh of Africa and South Western Asia, surviving on honey alone; they will actually eat just about anything. Upon examination there is not much that is not on the menu. They’ll eat plant material, insects, scorpions, venomous snakes, birds, small mammals and even scavenge off carcasses. This highly opportunistic diet serves them extremely well but it does, however, lead them into situations of human animal conflict. In a single raid a Honey Badger can cause a tremendous amount of damage to one’s beehives or chicken coop and the financial loss they can cause overnight can reach into the thousands. As a result, they often get themselves in trouble and can easily become a target resulting in their death.
Whilst a determined Honey Badger is hard to stop or keep out, is it fair to punish an animal for taking advantage of circumstance or doing exactly what its name suggests – eating honey? The onus should fall on man to better understand the environment and put in place the necessary deterrents to mitigate risk of loss instead of engaging in what can be perceived as acts of revenge. Beehives should be placed on poles and chicken houses should be strong and securely made with predators like Honey Badgers in mind. A proactive approach is always better than complaining after the fact.
Just like Honey Badgers take cues from their name and like eating honey, perhaps Humans need to follow the cues in our name too: humans can and should be a little bit more humane when it comes to coexistence.
The picture shows a huge Honey Badger that was captured by the Great Brak River Conservancy camera trap during June 2022.