The Honey badger: Conserving 'the most fearless animal in the world'

Colleen & Keith Begg

A honey badgerIn South Africa, you can now buy "honey badger-friendly" honey.
But, one has to ask, why anyone would want to be friendly to an animal labeled
"the meanest animal in the world". This is an animal that has an
armoured personnel carrier named after it in the South African Defense Force,
due to its tenacity and has attracted other superlatives in the popular press
including "most fearless animal in the world' in the 2002 edition of the
Guinness Book of Records and "pound for pound the most powerful creature in
Africa''. Yet what is the truth behind this creature with the bold black &
white markings and the larger than life reputation? And what is all the fuss
about?

Eight years ago, little was known about the honey badger or ratel despite its
extensive historical distribution extending through Sub-Saharan Africa, from the
Cape of Good Hope South Africa to southern Morocco and south western Algeria,
and outside of Africa through Arabia, Iran and western Asia to Turkmenistan and
the Indian peninsula. We knew that they were listed as Vulnerable (reassessed as
Near Threatened in 2002) in the South African Red Data Book, near threatened in
Morocco, Endangered in Niger and protected in Israel. We also knew that they
were being directly persecuted by beekeepers, killed for traditional medicine
and indirectly persecuted by traps and poison put out for other similarly sized
problem animals such as black-backed jackal and caracal. Yet we didn't know the
basics; how many young did they have, what was their social organisation, how
much space did they need, or even how did they communicate. Previous short-term
studies and stomach analysis suggested that they were generalist carnivores but
did they really castrate large prey items leaving them to bleed to death, as
suggested by Stevenson-Hamilton in 1947?

Knowledge of a species' behaviour is the key to successful conservation
efforts and it was obvious that an in-depth study of honey badgers was both
overdue and necessary to collect fundamental biological information. So began a
four-year study of honey badgers in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South
Africa between 1996 to 1999, supported by the Carnivore Conservation Group of
the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The results were revealing and in some cases,
surprising.

Meet the honey badger

Far from being the "meanest animal in the world", visual
observations revealed a medium sized carnivore (6 -12 kg) that avoids
confrontation with its main predators, leopard and lion. When challenged at
close quarters, the relatively slow moving honey badger does put up a formidable
display which includes the release of a strong scent from their anal scent
glands, a loud "rattling- roar" and rushing movements towards the
potential enemy whatever its size. But invincible, with no natural enemies?
Certainly not. Of particular conservation concern was their slow reproductive
turnover with only a single cub born every 16-18 months, relatively high adult
and cub mortality with only half the cubs reaching independence and extremely
large home ranges of both males (638 square kilometres) and females (138 square
kilometers). These ranges suggest that most protected areas may be too small to
protect viable populations of honey badgers.

Far from only eating honey as their name suggests, honey badgers are
generalist carnivores with more than 65 different prey items, ranging in size
from insect larvae to springhares and the young of Black-backed jackal and Cape
Fox, on the menu in the Kgalagadi. Their staple diet comprises rodents and
snakes including the highly venomous Cape cobra and pufadder. While honey and
bee brood were eaten when available, they were not a necessary part of the diet
and there was certainly no evidence of honey badgers castrating their prey. More
myths dispelled.

Conflict

But what about the "Badger-Friendly Initiative"? Once the field
study was completed our attentions turned to the conflict between commercial
beekeepers and honey badgers outside of protected areas, which was particularly
prevalent in South Africa. Aside from man, honey badgers are the most
significant mammalian predators of bees and they can and do cause substantial
losses to beekeepers. This is not a new problem, as throughout Africa, where
badgers still occur, traditional beekeepers hang their bark hives from trees to
minimize damage from badgers as they have done for generations. While
traditional beekeepers are remarkably fatalistic about the 2 -7 % of hives they
still lose to badgers each season, commercial beekeepers are less able to
support this level of loss. 

A survey of the beekeeper -badger conflict in Western Cape Province in South
Africa, completed in 2001 by K. Begg, revealed that honey badgers were causing
direct losses exceeding R500 000 ($62 500) annually in this area alone. More
than 80 % of beekeepers surveyed revealed that they had experienced problems
from badgers and more than half admitted to killing them, with steel jawed leg
hold traps and in same cases poison the method of choice. Predictably, hives
were most frequently damaged by badgers in areas where they are placed on the
ground in indigenous vegetation that supports both good bee forage (flowering
plants) and healthy populations of badgers.

The honey badgers specially protected status was hardly protecting them, and
their conservation was being seriously complicated by their reputation as
vicious, tenacious creatures with no natural enemies, that existed almost solely
on honey and bee brood. Something obviously needed to be done, but the challenge
was how to conserve this seldom seen carnivore outside of protected areas when
it has little to no direct economic value or eco-tourism potential, is difficult
to census and is a serious pest. Fortunately the survey also revealed some
surprising good news.

The badger-friendly initiative

Badger friendly honeyMany enterprising beekeepers have developed cost effective and practical hive
protection methods that minimize and in many cases prevent damage by honey
badgers. These are solutions provided by beekeepers for beekeepers, and in some
cases, they have been used for more than 50 years. With an average cost of only
R37 per hive as an initial outlay, hive protection saves a beekeeper hundreds of
thousands of rand in potential honey badger damage. While most beekeepers prefer
to raise their hives on stands or trestles at least a metre off the ground to
keep them out of reach of the badgers, they can also be secured on the ground
with metal straps, pallets or wire. Given these hive protection methods, it is
clear that trapping is an ineffectual and expensive means of solving the problem
and has no rational justification whether economic or ethical. To ensure
effective conservation of honey badger it is crucial that more beekeepers adopt
these "badger-friendly" practices as part and parcel of their
profession, particulary when their hives are placed in indigenous vegetation and
on the borders of protected areas.

To this end the Badger-Friendly Initiative, a three-year programme, was
initiated in May 2002, funded by The Green Trust, an associated trust of WWF-SA
made possible by Nedbank Green, the Carnivore Conservation Group of the
Endangered Wildlife Trust and Leisure Kitchens. Currently, beekeeping
organizations and conservation agencies and NGOs, together with retailers and
the public are working together to create a win / win solution to help both
beekeepers and honey badgers. Joan Isham has been appointed as a full time
extension officer and coordinator of the initiative, which aims to inform and
assist beekeepers on a one-to one basis with hive protection methods, to educate
the public about honey badgers and to provide positive incentives for
badger-friendly beekeeping.

Following local media coverage of the badger-beekeeper conflict in South
Africa, there was an overwhelming response from consumers asking how they could
tell which honey was from badger-friendly beekeepers. As a response, a
nationally recognized sticker and accreditation system was developed in
cooperation with the bee industry. Beekeepers that sign a public declaration
declaring their subscription to environmentally friendly and law-abiding
beekeeping (including hive protection in risk areas) are allowed to display the
"badger-friendly logo on their products. A designated extension officer
audits these beekeepers to ensure compliance with badger-friendly practices.
Through media and consumer pressure, two major retailers have already bought
into the initiative and are insisting that their honey suppliers are
"badger-friendly". One beekeeping couple says their sales have
increased since the public has become more aware of the role in honey badger
conservation by only buying honey clearly displaying the badger-friendly logo.
This is the incentive.

It is still early days, but this has the potential of being a "good news
story" of a carnivore-farmer conflict; one that can be solved to the
benefit of both parties. It provides a good example of how with cooperative
effort from all sides, including retailers and consumers, industry practices can
be changed to promote conservation. Of course, South Africa forms only a small
part of the range of honey badgers, but it is hoped that this might inspire
similar initiatives in other countries. If nothing else, a better understanding
of the fascinating creature behind the myth will help their conservation.

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