From standing up to big cats to tangling with snakes, honey badgers are known for their plucky natures. How has the honey badger, also known as the ratel, earned the reputation as the toughest character in the bush? By Gaynor Siljeur

In the bush, size isn’t always a sign of an animal’s strength and attitude. The honey badger might not be bigger than a medium-sized dog, but there’s nothing average about its tenacious nature. Here are some facts to help you identify this feisty animal and understand why it’s known as the tough guy of the bush.

Easy to ID

This stockily-built character has distinctive features, making it a cinch to identify. You will know a honey badger by its black coat and broad stripe of grey that runs from the back of the head right to the tip of the bushy tail. White stripes separate the grey saddle from the black underparts. The one thing you can’t mistake are the long claws on the forefeet; these have sharp edges underneath that are perfect for digging.

Picture by Mohammed Jinnah

Thick skin

Is it because of the thick skin that they say “honey badger don’t care”? Whatever the reason, it’s true that honey badgers have a tough hide. The skin fits the animal loosely, an aspect that comes in handy when a honey badger is captured. Because of the loose fit, the animal can wiggle around and fight back with its sharp claws and teeth.

Chemical weapon

That’s not the honey badgers only defence against predators. Enlarged anal glands release a foul-smelling substance when the animal is threatened, which can be enough to make their enemies think twice.

Picture by Sharifa Jinnah

Feisty attitude

It’s not just their skin that’s tough… the honey badger is not scared to have a go at any animal in the bush. There is plenty of evidence of honey badgers taking on animals many times their size. According to researcher Derek van der Merwe, they’ve been known to chase leopard off their kill and Wild traveller Norman Lok saw two honey badgers put juvenile cheetahs in their place. Field guide Trevor Carnaby doesn’t view honey badgers as aggressive animals, but says they are short of temper and can be very dangerous when they are harassed and feel threatened.

Did you know? The South African Defence Force named one of its infantry vehicles the Ratel after the ferocious little fighter.

Picture by Sharifa Jinnah

On the scent

The honey badger has poor eyesight and limited hearing, so they primarily rely on their sense of smell when looking for food. You will often see them walking around with their nose close to the ground and poking their heads in holes in the hope of finding a meal.

Picture by Mohammed Jinnah

An extra order of sweet treats

This gutsy creature is a non-fussy eater that tucks into a wide range of meals, including scorpions, spiders, rodents and reptiles like lizards and snakes. As the name indicates, the honey badger is known for breaking into beehives to pillage honey and larvae – the perfect dessert to any meal.

Are they immune to venom?

It’s a bit of a bush legend that the honey badger can shake off a snake bite or multiple bee stings. While the animal isn’t immune to venom, it builds up resistance over the course of its life. Mother honey badgers ensure that their young ones are first exposed to less venomous animals, like certain scorpions. They slowly introduce more lethal creatures as the cubs mature.

Picture by Sharifa Jinnah

Sources:

MAMMALS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA, A FIELD GUIDE.2012. STRUIK NATURE
BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH, MAMMALS AND BIRDS.2013. JACANA.

Also read: Get to know the long-legged serval