Meet the honey badger (Mellivora capensis), a widely distributed species across Africa, the Middle East and areas of Asia. They are close relatives of otters, polecats, wolverines, minks and martens (the Mustelidae family). Although considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a species of least concern, honey badgers are still persecuted heavily in some areas and are prone to becoming locally extinct. The primary reason for the persecution is the badger’s fondness for raiding beehives, which puts them in direct conflict with beekeepers wherever the two occur.
Honey badgers are adept tree climbers and are not averse to scavenging on leopard kills stashed in trees, usually when the owner is away! In the Kalahari, sociable weaver nests are a magnet for Cape cobras which prey on eggs and chicks. These in turn attract the badgers who will happily catch and kill snakes for food.
Badgers have distinctive colouring with broad black and white bands. Known as aposematic coloration, the striking pattern on a honey badger serves the key purpose of deterring would-be predators. Although they have a reputation for incredible bravery and ferocity, they do occasionally fall prey to predators like lions and leopards. Research on similarly marked animals has indicated that horizontal lines on the body can guide a would-be attacker towards the anal glands while black and white facial markings can be an indicator of aggression, which also helps to ward off predators.
Although fearless when attacked, honey badgers do not have large or very sharp teeth. They do, however, have powerful jaws for crushing prey items, long, strong nails for climbing and digging and a loose-fitting, tough skin that helps protect them against bites, scratches and stings. And of course – an attitude to make up for being small!
Dust bathing is not actually a common behaviour of the species. However, it is very likely that it fulfils the same role in badgers as in other mammals where it is linked to external parasite control, olfactory communication with other individuals (through leaving scent where the dust bathing takes place), and a possible means of cooling down in hot weather.
Dylan Smith is head of the Dedeben Research Centre at Tswalu