I have never been one for surprises, good or bad. A proverbial planner with a backup plan for every plan including the backups suits me far better. However, when one bears witness to the unexpected, that certainly gets me going. There is no doubt that we would rather be out in nature than anywhere else and given the chance, we head into other Reserves to just enjoy a change of scenery. Sitting around the fire after a peaceful day in the bush, and a sumptuous meal off the fire itself, we sit and reminisce the days happenings and just enjoy the peace and quiet that only a camping trip can bring. Most campers bunk down early, giving us the camp to ourselves in complete darkness.
One such evening, whilst doing just that, we heard a very faint rustle just beyond our fire. Sitting quietly, patiently, we were happened upon by a Civet, foraging in the dry leaf litter of an Apple Leaf Tree. Not finding much of interest, it went on its way. Shortly thereafter we saw the unmistakable shape of a spotted Hyena, just beyond the fires’ orange glow. It zigzagged its way closer to us, stopped and sniffed before turning and slowly slinking off into the dark. What was amazing for us was how quiet these animals were in their approach and only at the very last minute with sufficient light to give them away, did we realise exactly what had been moving towards our camp. It made sense. To avoid being prey and well to avoid startling your prey, it would be best to skulk around in near silence, one would think,
About ten minutes passed, when we were startled by a commotion of loud sniffing, leave litter being scattered and through the dying embers’ glow we could see the dust from something that we figured, given the noise, to be a buffalo coming our way. We sat in tense excitement, waiting for our visitor to reveal itself. It was not what we had expected, but immediately sparked a chain of thoughts, questions and exclamations in my mind. The honey badger that emerged was busy, on a mission, fervently searching out the possible rodent that had got its attention very close to where we were. In typical badger fashion it was actively fervently trying to flush out its prey as it darted to and from its suitable places of concealment, eventually outwitting its determined pursuer. At this point the badger halted its search, sat down to regroup, scratch and then sauntered off focusing on the next opportunity. We have always been in awe of the African Honey Badger and have been incredibly fortunate to witness the behaviour of many of them on our trips. What we witnessed that night, while the other campers slumbered away was incredible and so much more than just a sighting. Every other night visitor we had that night and on many other occasions, came into camp under the cover of darkness, in silence and with the movements of a shadow. Not wanting to be seen or heard, nor attract any attention to themselves. There were probably many others that simply slinked past us, without our knowing. The honey badger’s tactic was far less discreet and smacked of a temperament that it simply could not care who heard, saw or noticed it. It was there to be noticed. This was a revelation, as well as an experience of the complete epitome of what honey badgers are. The most fearless animal out there, who doesn’t give a hoot.
Early July, a typical mid-winters day at Makweti Safari Lodge. We have just hosted lunch with our guests and are planning the afternoon and evening in Camp when Jessica is startled by movement on the bar deck at the Main Lodge. A honey badger has crept up onto the deck, looking for its next meal. I am called to come and take a look, not quite believing what has just happened. I came through to the bar but the badger had moved off. Later that afternoon two of them would appear again in Camp and eventually make their way up to our house and then the staff house. They would continue to forage around the Camp into the early evening before expanding their forage elsewhere. Throughout this episode we were constantly alerted to their presence by the alarm calling by the Rock Dassies, or Hyrax, in and around the Camp, giving off their high-pitched chuckle as a honey badger emerged. It was a great experience and highly entertaining.
Whilst this wasn’t the first time, we had seen honey badgers on the Reserve, it was the first time in about a year that we had seen them so close to Camp, but also that they were relatively unphased by us. This was welcoming as we were more than happy to have them around. Almost immediately one thinks of why this would be? What brings them to Camp suddenly? Have they been around more often than we see or know, hence their being comfortable with people? What has brought them to Camp to forage for food? So many questions arose, that it re-ignited our interest and hence led to this story.
Now it is well known that the carelessness of Humans does create opportunities for honey badgers, and other opportunists, to forage for food close to human settlements, looking for discarded food scraps and taking advantage of the careless storage of waste, particularly from the kitchen. At Makweti Safari Lodge, I can assure you that is not, and will not, be the case and that all food waste is secured from all possible animals gaining access to it and all waste is removed three times daily from the production areas in Camps, to our refuse storage facility which is difficult for even the average human to access, let alone a hungry determined honey badger.
These Badgers are here for something else.
All about the Honey Badger
Up until the mid-1990’s very little was known and understood of honey badgers in the wild. As smaller, less important carnivores of the ecosystem, they were mostly deemed as vermin, particularly in the western Cape, where to this day they still carry this consideration. Studies conducted primarily in the Kalahari regions of southern Africa (dry semi-dessert grassland in the Northern Cape, into south western Botswana) have revealed fascinating insights into their and behaviour but still very little is known of their daily lives in mesic Savanna ecosystems, which includes the environment that Makweti occupies.
Honey badgers are unmistakable in appearance, with a distinct dark coloured body, carrying a grey to silver saddle. They have broad, muscled bodies and shoulders, short squat legs ending in large powerful front claws, a smallish head with small dark eyes and virtually no external ears. And if you still don’t get the picture, then try a swagger and gait that Steve McQueen would be envious of and an attitude to match.
They belong to the Order of Mammals, Carnivora, loosely lumping them with the larger more well-respected carnivores. Belonging to a family group known as the Mustellidea, which in Africa includes the weasels, otters and polecats too, there are two recognised badger species, and up to ten controversially regarded sub-species. The African Honey Badger, Mellivora capensis and the Indian Honey Badger, Mellivora indica. Honey badgers are widespread through sub-Saharan Africa and occupy most areas from the Western Cape to Morocco, east into the Arabian Peninsula and even further east into parts of Nepal and southern Russia. Interestingly, they do not occur in the Free State Province of South Africa, with only one unconfirmed historical record of them on the eastern border of the province. They tend to be able to occupy most areas, provided there is sufficient cover and food availability.
Previously referred to as Omnivorous, honey badgers are more accurately regarded as Mesocarnivorous, indicating that 50-70% of their diet comprises of meat. They feed on insect larvae to rodents, spiders, scorpions, snakes and other reptiles to birds and bird eggs. They have an appetite for meat and will take the young of other small carnivores and records of scavenging from the carcasses of large carnivore kills are evident. They have been known to catch crocodiles up to a meter long and of course they have a palate for honey comb and the bee larvae trapped within. They derive the majority of their moisture needs from their food, drinking water irregularly and in the dry Kalahari environments, have been known to eat the juicy Tsama melons to meet their water demands. They have a nose for many things, with a wide range to choose from.
They live solitary lives for the most part. The two badgers that we were fortunate to see in Camp were most likely an adult female and her offspring, although the possibility of it being a male and a female mating pair could not be completely ruled out. Given their wide dietary preferences, foraging for food in the gorge around Makweti would seem the obvious reason, and with the abundance of food recently this would make more sense.
Males and females will occupy home ranges that they regularly scent mark, firstly to communicate with other individuals sharing the area and also to fend off any unwanted visitors. Home ranges for males are considerably larger than the females’ areas. Male ranges can be up to 500 square kilometres, with females occupying areas up to 150 square kilometres. This means that a male’s home range can include that of the females and in some cases as many as thirteen females ranges could overlap with a single male’s range. This certainly gives him potential mating options when the breeding season arrives.
The role of the female is prolonged in raising her single born young. A gestation of only six to eight weeks, ensures her role as mother starts soon after falling pregnant. Her young are kept in a burrow for up to three months. At two months, with eyes still closed, the female moves her offspring to a new den every three to five days. This aids to avoid predators locating the helpless baby badger, and allows mom to forage in new areas for food in order to produce sufficient nutrition for her offspring. At almost three months, the youngster will venture out and forage with the female as it cannot source or provide food for itself just yet. The skills required to be a successful badger are immense and takes a female up to fourteen months to pass these skills on to ensure her offspring have the best possible chance of survival. Studies have shown that in the Kalahari, as much as 47% of young badgers don’t make it to the independence age of fourteen months.
Finding food is a critical daily activity, with only finding a mate becoming more important in the breeding season.
Honey Badgers are typically active during two peak periods of the day. In Summer, they tend to be more nocturnal and will forage early morning before and after sunrise for a couple of hours, resting during the heat of the day. They resume their foraging in the early evening shortly after sunset, foraging into the night until midnight, when they rest again. In Winter, they shift peak activity periods to later in the mornings, after sunrise into the mind-morning. Resting until around an hour before sunset where they will forage until early night, before it gets too cold. Again, these behaviour patterns are records from extensive studies in the Kalahari. Although we see similar trends in the Savanna ecosystems, we have been lucky to observe badgers in, we cannot definitively say that this behaviour is a mirror. Savanna day and night temperatures are similar yet different to those in a semi-desert environment, both in Winter and Summer, however the trend in both environments mimic each other.
It is clear that honey badgers require large areas to forage and find potential mates. As a result of the vast expanses they occupy, badger numbers within protected areas are expected to be low. Much like Cheetah, honey badgers also prefer to live in low-density populations. However, this does limit their protection in wildlife reserves, resulting in a large portion of the population living outside of these reserves, on neighbouring rangelands and farmlands. The Camp is home to a substantial population of Rock Dassies, or Hyrax, well highlighted in a previous blog of ours. One only needs to walk the distance from the Indaba waterhole to your Suite and you will encounter many these local inhabitants. Dassies breed seasonally and in the drier northern parts of South Africa, usually give birth in Autumn to early Winter. During the first week of June, we witnessed a mother dassie giving birth to three young. In the days following this unique sighting we noticed many more, young dassies around and counted up to thirty of them resting in the sun on the deck below the Main Lodge pool on one occasion. Their arrival, coinciding with the arrival of the badgers, could be less coincidental than we believe. Being ‘honey’ badgers, one cannot rule out the possibility that the presence of a beehive in the area that may have lured them into our realm.
Several sightings of these badgers were enjoyed in the weeks to follow. On one occasion the kitchen ladies alerted us to a badger sleeping on the rocks below the deck of Suite 2. We quietly approached the Main Lodge deck overlooking its sleeping spot, from where we were able to capture a few images whilst it enjoyed the winter sun. At all times was it under the watch of the alert adult dassies in whose territory this badger had decided to book a quick sleepover.
A Hunt for Honey?
There are many folktales and stories of the honey badger. The Khoisan people from the inner regions of southern Africa speak of the bird that guides them to honey. The speak of the honey badger being fearless but who lacks intelligence (far from our personal observations). They tell a story of how the water tortoise (the terrapin) lures the badger to assist it, feigning injury and enticing the badger to gently stroke its neck. The water tortoise tricks the badger and pulls his neck into his shell, catching the badgers’ claws. This is repeated until the badger is trapped with all four paws inside the shell. In trying to escape the badger pulls and pulls, trying to free his paws and when he finally succeeds his paws are small and his claws are long having been squished and stretched in his battle.
But certainly, one of the most narrated stories of all includes the honey badger and a bird, the Honey-Guide. Told and re-told for over a century and a half, this story is regarded as a folktale and mere fantasy and spoken in anecdotal fashion all over the bushveld. This story has become legend, and yet it is believed to have no truth. However, if one considers the facts and the likelihood of the truth, well I guess the stories relevance and existence could also hold some truth. Early 1800’s South Africa, a successful great white hunter on an expedition come across his first honey-bird. R. Gordon Cummings in his diary entry for the day, pays tribute to his first sighting of the honey-bird and tells how it chittered and chattered to get him to follow it, to a place of golden treasure – a bee hive. He goes on to mention that on other occasions on following this bird he was merely lured to near death circumstances. A waiting crocodile, lying hidden in the reeds of a riverbank. He re-tells the story of others who met their fate in a similar fashion, being lured to a lazy slumbering lion or snake. How and why the bird would lure a man to its death makes no sense, without motive or reward?
None the less, the Honeyguide is renowned for leading man and baboon to a beehive, from which the man or baboon would enjoy a rich feast, leaving for its guiding friend, a gift of gratitude, honeycomb and bee larvae. This story holds much truth and we have witnessed it first-hand. Walking on a wetland reserve about two hundred kilometres east of Makweti Safari Lodge in mid-March 2020, we were met by a Greater Honeyguide who led us for about four hundred meters in search of the hive it had located. We did not pursue this adventure to the end, and bid farewell to the bird at that point and continued on our way back to camp. The bird was least impressed and for another fifteen minutes tried in vain to lead us back to where it had started with the hive hunt. It was mid-morning, and so would certainly have located another more willing companion to join its honey hunt.
The point here, is that the bird leading a man or baboon to a hive for a reward is well documented and witnessed. However, the bird leading a honey badger to a hive for the same result, is neither conclusively recorded, witnessed or documented without controversy. This version of the story whilst plausible is unconfirmed, bar for a few spoken records from eye witness accounts. It is said that on occasion a hunter or person walking in the bush, has come across a honey badger raiding a bee hive, and not far away, excitedly chittering is a Honeyguide. However, this does not imply that the bird did the finding and guiding. It is believed and witnessed that the Honeyguide perhaps followed the badger, knowing quite well that a reward or at least the scraps of the badger’s meal would soon present itself. In the Kalahari system, badgers are well known to be followed by other species of mammals and birds. All too often when one spots a badger therewith one finds a patiently waiting Pale Chanting Goshawk, as we witnessed during our trip of August 2019. The Goshawk itself an opportunist looking for a free meal. It is well studied and described that the Pale Chanting Goshawk is a shadow to the badger in this environment, and our experience merely laid witness to this already known fact. Almost 40% of the prey pursued by honey badgers in the Kalahari, are likely escape the badgers attempts, however this is where the Goshawks, and even owls and jackals will benefit, chasing the flushed prey that they ordinarily would not have been able to access.
So, this lends the question still, which came first? The Badger or the Bird? Well, to be honest it doesn’t really matter as nature constantly shows us the means to survival is to adapt. To use all resources available in order to succeed. Ornithologists will acknowledge the tale of the badger and the bird, but do not back the theory and will give only anecdotal accounts of this behaviour. Mammologists would prefer to believe that the badger does indeed provide a source of nourishment for the bird. It can be argued that since honey badgers are nocturnal most of the year, how would they come into contact with the bird. Unless these birds have night foraging capabilities, of which little is understood. More to that, honey badgers occur in good numbers in the Kalahari, an environment in which the Honeyguide does not occur. This however, is testament only to how little we know about both badger and bird, and less so about how their behaviours are influenced by each other and their environments.
The Honey Badger, Mellivora capensis, derives its name from its fondness for honey. From the Greek melli – honey and the Latin voro – to devour. This deep desire for honey, leaving the bird aside, has in modern times sadly led to many badgers meeting their end. Across their ranges, outside of reserves, they are regarded as pest or vermin as a result of them damaging and often destroying the hives of beekeepers. As mentioned earlier, honey badgers are found extensively outside of reserves due to home range size constraints. This inevitably means they will come into contact with farmers and beekeepers, and the results are deadly. The badgers are well equipped to break open the tree casing that hides the hive, or to dig into a burrow in which rodents are living. They, perhaps thanks to the terrapin many millennia ago, have large front claws and short strong arms in which to break into most substrates harbouring nourishment. No match for a wooden beehive box.
Traditional African beekeepers have suffered hive losses to badgers for as long as beekeeping is known to have existed amongst these cultures. However, losses were accepted as par for the course and so honey badgers were not threatened by the beekeepers themselves. Losses of up to 7% were deemed acceptable, but beekeeping then as it does now, did not constitute a large part of the agriculture or apiculture trade.
Most people think of bees as providers of honey, a sweet healthy delicacy spread over hot buttered toast. However, bees are fundamental to the environment as well as the agricultural trade, providing vital pollinating services to many if not the majority of our crops. Annually, an estimated half a million rand is lost in the apiculture industry due to badger beekeeper conflict.
Although badgers are protected by conservation policies, farmers have no concern admitting to killing badgers as a result of their losses. This is devastating, and it is estimated that at most about thirteen thousand badgers exist living in the wild. A miniscule number if you consider the vast areas they can occupy.
Honey Badgers outside of reserves are in trouble, and more needs to be understood to address this conflict of interest. Their numbers are declining rapidly, and without larger reserves, sustaining larger viable populations, the smaller reserves such as Welgevonden Game Reserve, will never be able to ensure a viable population is sustained. Less than a third of all current reserves in southern Africa are large enough to sustain a viable wild honey badger population. We know that they breed slowly, giving birth to only one young. The mother role is extended and this slows their breeding potential. Adult badgers live for five to eight years, which means their breeding period in a lifetime is short. We know that they occupy large areas, too large to be protected and hence they come into conflict with human activities in unprotected areas. More needs to be done to preserve them.
Conservation organisations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust are working with bee farmers for apicultural and agricultural purposes to mitigate the losses attributed to honey badgers. Badger friendly beehives have been developed and other badger deterrents that are non-lethal are being developed to aid farmers in farming better to avoid badger conflict. This however rests solely with the farmer and no formal legislation requires farmers to adapt these practices. Bee-farmers are encouraged to buy into the Badger Friendly Label (BFL) initiative to promote their bee products as being farmed under sustainable and badger friendly conditions. These efforts have to date reduced the killings of badgers by farmers by nearly 60%. A change in approach. A willingness to adapt and improve. An understanding of the implications our actions have and our choices result in.
Choosing a honey for your next breakfast table should allow a badger to sit at the table with you and share in natures golden treat.
I implore you to read through the reference list below and to give credit to all those who dedicate time, money, energy and their lives to conservation. These blogs we present are a mere window dressing of what is really being done.
Special mention must be given to Keith and Colleen Begg for their immense research in Honey Badgers and their conservation and for paving the way for Badgers and Farmers to coexist peacefully. Take a look at their website www.honeybadger.com
Text – Neil Davison
Photographs – Neil Davison
- 30 years of personal observations by the author on various Reserves in South Africa including Welgevonden Game Reserve
- Skinner, J., D., Smithers, R., H., N., Mammals of the Southern African Sub Region, Second Edition, University of Pretoria: Mammal Research Institute, Pretoria, 1990
- Estes, R., D., The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals, Russel Friedman Books CC, 1995
- Gordon Cummings, R., A Hunters Life in South Africa, Galago Publishing, Johannesburg. 1986
- Begg CM, Begg KS, Power RJ, van der Merwe D, Camacho G, Cowell C, Do Linh San E. 2016. A conservation assessment of Mellivora capensis. In Child MF, Roxburgh L, Do Linh San E, Raimondo D, Davies-Mostert HT, editors. The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. South African National Biodiversity Institute and Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa
- Fincham JE, Peek R, Markus MB 2017 The Greater Honeyguide: Reciprocal signalling and innate recognition of a Honey Badger. Biodiversity Observations 8.12: 1–6
- Rafapa, L., South African Khoisan Literature in the Context of World Literary Discourse, Athens Journal of Philology, 3.2: 83-96
- Carter, S., du Plessis, T., Chwalibog, A., & Sawosz, E. (2017). The Honey Badger in South Africa: Biology and Conservation. International Journal of Avian & Wildlife Biology, 2(2), 
- Begg, C., M., Feeding ecology and social organisation of honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) in the southern Kalahari, University of Pretoria, in partial submission of Doctoral thesis, Pretoria, 2006
- Begg, K. S., Report on the conflict between beekeepers and honey badgers Mellivora capensis, with reference to their conservation status and distribution in South Africa, March 2001
- Begg, C. M., Begg, K. S., du Toit, J. T., Mills, M. G. L., Sexual and seasonal variation in the diet and foraging behaviour of a sexually dimorphic carnivore, the honey badger, J. Zool., London (2003) 260: 301-316
Web Pages of Interest: