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By Steyn Marais Reserve Manager

One of Jakkalsfontein’s more secretive residents is the honey badger (Mellivora capensis), also known by the Afrikaans name, ratel. The only glimpse that one may have of a honey badger is in the form of a road kill, as in the accompanying photograph. This unfortunate animal was found during May 2009 on the West Coast road, roughly 1 km north of the Jakkalsfontein main entrance gate.

The honey badger has a distribution which extends beyond the confines of the African continent to parts of Asia and India. Throughout this range they are not common anywhere and in parts are considered as rare. The badger occurs throughout Africa with the exception of dune desert regions, the Free State and Lesotho. The availability of surface water appears to be an important habitat requirement. Although they use crevices in rocky areas in which to shelter, they are powerful diggers which excavate underground refuges for themselves or adapt existing disused holes created by animals such as aardvark (Orycteropus afer) and porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis). Here they buffer themselves against extreme temperatures which include throwing sand over themselves to regulate their body temperature. Although honey badgers are predominantly nocturnal, it has been observed in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park how they change from being nocturnal in summer to diurnal in winter in order to adjust to the high summer temperatures.

They have a strong tendency to use tracks and roads along which they move at a lumbering trot that carries them surprisingly quickly. When hunting, honey badgers move with a slow, rolling, shuffling gait with the nose close to the ground. A high proportion of prey, such as rodents, burrowing reptiles and scorpions are dug up with their powerful front limbs and long, knife-like claws. In one specimen, scorpions compromised 90% of the stomach content. Although normally terrestrial they are known to climb trees in search of lizards and to get to beehives. They dig in the hardest ground to obtain access to baboon spiders or the hives of indigenous bee species. They will raid aviaries if the opportunity arises. They experience no difficulty in tearing through wire netting and on gaining entry are inclined to kill far more than they can consume. It has been described how a honey badger, after having been caught in a steel live- trap, tore off the end of the trap in order to escape, but not content with this it attacked the trap, crushing in the side and destroying the trigger mechanism!

While normally shy and retiring, these courageous animals can occasionally and without provocation become extremely aggressive. In intraspecific fighting individuals invite one other to bite first. Whichever does so is at a disadvantage for the other would then lunge for the softer vulnerable skin of the abdomen. In encounters with dogs they invariably come off best as the dog’s teeth rarely penetrate the loose, thick skin. It has been said that if a dog grips any part of it the honey badger can turn around inside its skin and bite back. The famous first Warden of the Kruger National Park, Stevenson-Hamilton recorded several honey badgers walking off, little the worse, after encounters with packs of dogs.

The thick skin effectively protects them when they raid beehives. It has been observed how a female and her large cub break into 13 beehives over 37 visits to eat bee brood and honeycomb. In 61% of the visits the swarm sucessfully repelled the honey badgers.

Jakkalsfontein homeowners are once again reminded to report interesting faunal sightings on and around Jakkalsfontein to the Nature Reserve Manager.

Reference: Skinner J.D. & Chimamba C.T. (2005): The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion. Cambridge University Press, Cape Town.


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