Rumored to emasculate its prey and sham its own death, the solitary and reclusive honey badger, also known as the "honey ratel", is one of the most rarely observed of Afro-Asian carnivores and clearly one of the most apathetic. The honey badger gained much acclaim in North America and around the world from a wacky and sardonic 2011 video parody, which circulated off the charts. The gripping footage went viral thanks to a quirky natural history narrative full of expletives and loosely accurate conjecture about the hunting and scavenging behavior of the formidable mustelid. Nonetheless, the YouTube video, which has since received over 70 million views, explains why the Guinness Book of World Records lists the honey badger as the most fearless animal in the world.
The dubbed parody of clips of honey badgers in action originally aired on the National Geographic Channel's Ultimate Animal Countdown. The video showcases the tenacity and ferocity of these infamous scavengers and notorious bee hive invaders. But is it really possible to determine for certain if honey badgers are the most fearless animals on Earth? Well, they are certainly at the top of the list and I'll explain why.
According to the website of the World Famous San Diego Zoo, which is one of four zoos in the United States to have recently exhibited honey badgers, "It would be hard to find a more quarrelsome animal than the honey badger. It doesn't start fights it can't finish and makes an impressive foe." And, I should add that honey badgers don't actually feed on honey, rather they raid bee hives in search of bee larvae.
In reference to South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, the scientific name of the honey badger is Mellivora capensis, which means "honey eaters of the Cape". Representative of a monotypic taxon, the honey badger is the only member of its genus and it is more closely related to weasels than the 11 species of badgers.
Yes, pound for pound, the honey badger is often considered one of the toughest carnivorans (mammalian carnivores) on the planet. They have been known to stand their ground in confrontations with larger predators like lions and African wild dogs (painted dogs). Rural villagers often consider the honey badger to be quite the destructive nuisance animal. They sometimes damage property, including unprotected bee hives and they occasionally menace and kill young livestock. In their defense, honey badgers (AKA ratels) are not commonly observed marauding the bush in search of trouble. They are, in fact, rarely seen.
A recent gene sequencing study exploring the molecular underpinnings of snake venom resistance in honey badgers explains why these fearless and tenacious creatures seem to be able to evade the aftereffects of being envenomated by the potent and lethal neurotoxins of cobras. The researchers used blood samples from zoo honey badgers to investigate molecular defenses against snake venom in mammals. Since snake bites are responsible for near 100,000 human deaths per year, this kind of biomedical research may ultimately help save lives.
The ratel is found in low numbers throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa where they occur. A recent census of ratels in South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park indicated honey badgers may occur at densities as low as 0.03 adults per square kilometer. Sadly, they are persecuted throughout their African range, which includes South Africa, Zambia and other neighboring southern African countries.
Unfortunately, these opportunistic carnivorans can become easily habituated to humans if permitted to scavenge on refuse in the proximity of human dwellings. Consequently, honey badgers may succumb to directed control efforts and are also casualties of non-selective control programs for other carnivore species like jackals.
Indeed, honey badgers are frequently unwelcomed visitors to livestock pens and apiaries. And so it is not uncommon to find honey badgers poisoned or captured in steel-jawed traps. Dangers to honey badgers are not just the obvious preemptive control programs or tactics used to depopulate nuisance species. To prevent human-wildlife conflict with species like the honey badger, Zikomo Safaris places great emphasis on securing trash and debris at the bush camp, and by protecting apiaries through modern day hive protection techniques.
Dr. Schaul serves on the board of Nsefu Wildlife Conservation Foundation, which administers conservation programs for Zikomo Safari Camp, an ecotourism outfitter and bushcamp near South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Africa. A version of this article previously appeared on the websites for both organizations.