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the web of life in southern Africa

Mellivora capensis (Honey badger)

ratel [Afrikaans]; Honigdachs [German]; ratel [French]; nyegere [Swahili]; ulinda [isiNdebele]; insele [isiZulu] [siSwati]; magg [Sesotho]; matshwane, magg, maggw, magogwe, magwagw [Setswana]; sere, tsere [Shona]; xidzidzi [Xitsonga]; tshiselele [Tshivenda]; sikape [Lozi]; umbuli [Yei]; |Harebab, |Hareseb [Nama, [Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Mustelidae > Subfamily: Mellivorinae

Mellivora capensis (Honey badger) Mellivora capensis (Honey badger)

Honey badger in captivity in the Howletts Wild Animal Park, United Kingdom. [photo Tom Enticknap ]

Honey badger. [photo Norman Larsen ]

Derivation of name

The common name of honey badger originates from the behaviour of raiding beehives, natural and man-made, to eat the honey and the larvae. Their other common name is “Ratel” which is Afrikaans for rattle or honeycomb.


The honey badger has a stocky thickset body. It has striking colouration with a silver-grey mantle that extends from ear to ear over the top of the head, widening over the back and narrows to a point at the base of the tail. The sides, limbs and underparts are pure black. The top of the head and the neck are whiter than the other markings. The short bushy black tail is often held erect while the animal is trotting along. The ears are small and hardly noticeable on the side of the head. The long heavy claws on the forefeet are shaped like curved knives, an adaptation to climbing and digging. The claws on the hindfeet are shorter and broader. The skin is very thick and loose. It is reported that if a honey badger is held in a grip by a predator it is able to turn around and bite in defense. Like other mustelids they have a pair of anal glands that excrete a foul smelling fluid in defense. The bone of the skull is very thick and heavy.


Total length 90 – 100 cm; shoulder height 30 cm; weight range 8 – 14 kg.

Dental Formula

   ICPM = 32

Distribution and habitat

Found in a wide variety of habitats throughout most of southern Africa, but does not occur in the Free State and along the west coast including the Namibian coastline.

General behaviour

Mainly nocturnal the honey badger may be active in the early morning and late afternoon in less disturbed areas. They are regarded tough, fearless and aggressive. When threatened by much larger animals they will often retaliate and chase off predators as large as lion. Honey badgers are skilled tree climbers and nest raiders (chicks and eggs) and have to learn this behaviour from their mother as it is not an inherited instinct. They shelter in crevices in rocky areas, but are powerful diggers and can dig their own refuges or modify existing unoccupied burrows, like aardvark dens


The honey badger is a generalist and has a wide variety of food but insects, other invertebrates, rodents and reptiles are the most important. Also eats fruit and carrion.

The honey badger is well-known for its foraging association with a small bird, the honeyguide. These birds can find the nests of wild bees but cannot break into the hive. They have a distinctive song that they use to attract a honey badger to the hive and wait for the hive to be opened for them. Once the badger has eaten the honey and larvae that it wants from the hive the bird eats the larvae and wax. Recent studies in the Kalahari have shown that the honey badger digs out 85% of its prey. Larger prey especially snakes make up over 50% of the prey eaten. It is a highly skilled hunter and bites the head off snakes, seeming to be immune to their toxic venom. Leopards and lions sometimes hunt honey badgers


Gestation period is about 180 days. A litter of 1 – 2 cubs are born in a burrow lined with grass and leavers. Females are seldom seen with more than one cub, occasionally two. The cubs are blind and naked at birth and development is very slow. They only start to see at about 2.5 months and hear at about 3 months. At this stage they will emerge from the burrow. Young are a rusty brown colour on their upperparts. It takes up to a year before a cub can live independently from its mother. Cubs spend almost 2 years with their mother learning skills and behaviour from her. Total life span averages about 16 years.


Honey badgers come into fatal conflict with farmers as some individuals will kill poultry, sheep and goats. However, it is their taste for honey that gets the honey badger into trouble with bee keepers. In many areas it is now threatened with extinction due to indiscriminate poisoning, death by gun or dog and the extremely cruel gin trapping still practiced by farmers in the hope of deterring them in their search for honey. There are, however, several effective and cheap interventions which result in the “badger proofing” of bee hives. These methods need to be implemented to ensure that the badgers remain safe and that the farmers don’t suffer economic losses. In South Africa a campaign to promote the conservation of honey badgers recognises farmers that invest in building hives that are badger proof. Their products carry a logo indicating that the product is “Badger Friendly”. It is important to support conservation initiatives like this where both parties benefit, and actively seek out honey products from “Badger Friendly” farmers”.

Text by Denise Hamerton