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September 2004

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Honey Badgers

By Colleen and Keith Begg
As the Kalahari Desert cools at twilight, a honey badger and her cub begin foraging for food—two of dozens of badgers whose habits we documented over nearly four years. Supported by the University of Pretoria's Mammal Research Institute and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, we established a 600-square-mile (1553-square-kilometer)  study area in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (jointly managed by South Africa and Botswana) and spent nearly 6,000 hours there observing wild badger behavior. We saw them confront enemies, mate, rear young, and hunt prey from insects to reptiles and rodents.
Honey badgers are famously tough. (South Africa's National Defense Force calls its armored personnel carriers ratels, the Afrikaans word for these beasts.) But we discovered that they're far from indestructible. Lions and leopards routinely kill them. The badgers' appetite for ravaging beehives (thus their common name) causes conflicts with commercial honey producers, some of whom shoot, trap, or poison animals they suspect of damaging their hives. Females have just one offspring at a time—not the multicub litters previously assumed—and though they care for their young for more than a year after birth, half of all cubs succumb to predators or starvation and die before achieving independence.
Hide and seek—on a grand scale
Shoes make it harder to run in soft sand, so we do most of our badger tracking barefoot. Scorching  heat and thorny brush are minor concerns when you're trying to net a 25-pound (11-kilogram ) male that easily trots at six miles  (10 kilometers) an hour and patrols a home range of 200 square miles  (518 square kilometers) or more. (A male North American badger of about the same body size has a home range of only one square mile (3 square kilometers).) Female honey badgers are smaller, averaging under 15 pounds (7 kilograms), yet even they cover upwards of 50 square miles (130 square kilometers) as they forage and rear their young.
A mother carries a tiny cub, like the two-month-old above, more than a mile to a new den every three to five days. Once the cub can walk well on its own, the mother and cub will sleep in a different burrow almost every night to evade predators and find new prey.
Little is known about honey badger numbers in most countries where they're found, but they seem to be disappearing in many areas. They're considered endangered in Niger, protected in Israel and India, and near-threatened in Morocco and South Africa. We're worried about them. Their need for large ranges, combined with low reproductive rates and human persecution, may mean that many national parks and other conservation areas are too small to protect sustainable populations.
Deadly venom? Maybe not.
Snakes make high-yield meals, and honey badgers track them relentlessly. Wherever snakes try to hide—up trees, in dense brush, or underground—badgers follow and attack. A 13-minute treetop battle with a venomous Cape cobra earned this female badger a pound and a half of meat for herself and her cub. In summer, when snakes are most active, they provide more than half the total food badgers consume. Even lethal puff adders are on the menu.
One night we saw a young male collapse. He'd been struck in the face by a puff adder just before he bit its head off. We expected that he would die. But after two hours he woke up, groggily finished his meal, and later trotted off into the sunrise. We witnessed other encounters in which honey badgers appeared resistant to even the most potent venoms, though we don't yet understand the physiology that protects them.
Digging for dinner, then playing it cool

Equipped with inch-and-a-half-long claws that grow throughout their lives, adult honey badgers can dig themselves out of sight in just a couple of minutes. They capture more than three-fourths of their prey underground. Cubs try to dig on their earliest outings, but not until about eight months old do they become adept enough to help their mothers hunt.
Badgers of all ages display a knack for finding refreshment. About 90 percent liquid, the flesh of a tsama melon provides needed moisture in a landscape where surface water is nearly nonexistent. If nighttime foraging proves successful, well-fed badgers often pause for a belly-to-the-breeze respite, catching updrafts on the dune slopes and flicking cool sand onto hot skin.
Opportunists like a goshawk may snatch prey that elude badgers' claws. Freeloaders annoy honey badgers, but don't cause them to go hungry. Our next research site? A woodland in Mozambique, where we can watch these two-toned ruffians take on a different habitat.


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