I was watching the Botswana special episode of the British television show Top Gear earlier this week, the one in which the three hosts use sub-standard cars to make their way from the Zimbabwean border to the Namibian one, and a certain scene got me thinking. In it, the hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, have just been given a description of the next part of their journey:
May : You will drive your cars to Namibia through the Okavango Delta. …In the Okavango you will encounter many deadly animals, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, hippos, black rhino and crocodile. …shield-nosed snakes, puff adders, boomslang, cape cobras, banded cobras, black mambas, black widows and thick-tailed scorpions.
Clarkson: What about the honey badger?
Hammond: The what?
Clarkson: Honey badger.
May: That’s the least scary sounding animal in the world.
Clarkson: The honey badger does not kill you to eat you. It tears off your testicles.
Hammond: It does not!
May: Why is it called a honey badger?
Clarkson: Because that’s what’s made it angry.
Hammond: Why isn’t it called the badger of death?
Like May and Hammond, I was more than a bit skeptical of Clarkson's claim; it wouldn't be out of character for him to invent something like that for the amusement of the viewers. So I was astonished to discover that the honey badger is real and known as "the meanest animal in the world."
Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis), also known as ratels, are members of the weasel family and not actually badgers. A bit bigger than a house cat, they live throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and in parts of Asia. Honey badgers get their name from their penchant for raiding beehives. (They're such a pest to beehives that one of the honey badger's main threats is being killed in a trap or poisoned by commercial beekeepers.) But as opportunistic, generalist carnivores, they'll eat nearly anything: insects, birds, reptiles, small mammals, even young crocodiles.
They are tough creatures with thick skin, but their reputation for meanness may be slightly exaggerated. In the past it was thought that honey badgers succumbed to no predator other than humans, but it's now known that leopards and lions eat the animals. And though there were reports in the mid-20th century that honey badgers killed prey by emasculating them and letting them bleed to death, no one has reported such as attack, on prey or on humans, since 1950, and this may simply be folklore.
The honey badger is listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, but its range has likely been decreasing. They tend to live in low densities, which makes assessing the population harder (and may explain why they are easily overlooked). It may also explain why little but myth has been known about the creatures until recently.
That research has gone to good use. In the past decade, scientists developed an easy way to remove the threat from beekeepers; simply moving the beehives out of reach of the honey badgers alleviates their threat to the bees. Researchers worked with the local bee industry in South Africa to standardize practices. Now beekeepers who subscribe to the South African Bee Industry’s Code of Practice can sell "badger-friendly" honey.