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Badgered! Obsessions With An Elusive Generalist

Badgered! Obsessions With An Elusive Generalist

The feisty, elusive honey badger has Rakesh Kalva in its thrall. Despite just one wild sighting in over two years of searching, he remains committed to understanding the distribution and behaviour of this carnivore.

Though solitary in nature, the female honey badger is a committed mother. She will care for her young for upto 16 months after birth. Photo: Bharath Reddy & Venu Gopal.

It’s been over two years now since my first and only honey badger sighting. The image, still fresh in my mind, is a reaffirmation that some things in life never fade with time.

It all began during camera-trap sessions for tigers in the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve located in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh. The species had turned up in several camera traps but enquiries with local Chenchu tribals revealed only mythical stories about the species, having had no encounters with it in the wild. It was surprising that despite the high human footprint in these forests, the species had managed to stay hidden from human sight. Intrigued, I corresponded with several naturalists and researchers and scanned available literature to find out more. The only substantial work I came across was by a husband-wife duo, Keith and Colline Begg, in Southern Kalahari and Niassa in Africa.

In India, apart from opportunistic, anecdotal sightings, very little is known regarding the ecology of honey badgers. The hunt therefore became a personal obsession, and every forest visit had the hidden agenda of finding this elusive animal.

LOUNGE IN THE WILD

In the late morning hours of February 2014, I was in the Kawal Tiger Reserve, on a transect walk for large herbivores as part of my Master’s dissertation. My field assistant Mohan knew about my fascination with the honey badger, and on finishing our work, we walked along a nearby stream looking for signs. On one of the smaller hillocks, I spotted potential badger ‘lounges’. As the substrate and soil in a dry deciduous forest do not really facilitate excavating burrows, honey badgers take advantage of rock crevices and dead, hollow tree trunks. I asked Mohan to move quietly while I checked the fractures cautiously one by one as these were also the preferred haunts of sloth bears and wild pigs. As we climbed the hill, with Mohan some 10 m. ahead of me, to my right I caught sight of a dark-greyish figure with a whitish top peeping out from a crevice. It gazed at me with its tiny black eyes and then retreated. Was that a honey badger? Or just my imagination playing tricks? I quickly rewound the episode in my mind. Mohan’s footsteps on the dry foliage must have disturbed the resting ratel. He kept walking, unaware of the momentous event. I sent out a soft whistle, signaling that I wanted him to walk away, parallel to the den, and to pass me the camera he had with him. Meanwhile I kept a lookout for the animal, assuming, mistakenly that the den had only one opening. When the badger saw Mohan, it did a quick turnaround and bolted away from the rear exit. Camera in hand, I began to follow it but when I was roughly 20 m. from it, it disappeared behind a huge boulder. As I walked towards the boulder, a sudden rustle of dry teak leaves alerted me. It was a small Indian civet! I kept walking towards the boulder, cautiously peeping out from its edge. No sign of the honey badger. I looked around for 15 or 20 minutes hopeful of getting another glimpse of the enigmatic animal. This is what is wonderful about wildlife sightings. You stay alert for long periods of times and then, within just a few seconds, you get lucky with virtually no warning about when or where your quarry might appear… or vanish.

I was disappointed to have lost track of the honey badger, yet simultaneously delighted to have seen the elusive animal at all. Wanting to see more of it was just me being greedy. An episode which I had lived hundreds of times in my dreams had actually come true. I think I will always remember the vision of its dark-coloured head in the background of dry foliage. Mohan, meanwhile, looked at me quizzically, unable to comprehend why one animal had me in raptures as we see varied animals on our transects every day.

Naturally, I traced my steps back to the den, looked in and was able to find fresh, shapeless scat that had a characteristic carnivore odour. I conjectured that one plausible reason for defecating  in their own den might be to keep other animals such as porcupines and wild pigs away. That raised questions in my mind – do honey badgers have fixed resting spots or do they take to dens opportunistically? Over the next two months, I visited the den four times but found no signs of the honey badger, or any other animal for that matter. On examination, I saw undisturbed dry foliage and a slew of spider webs, with the degraded scat still inside. Clearly, the den was not being used.

The author inspects a honey badger den. Rock crevices and hollow tree trunks make good homes for these shy animals. Photo Courtesy: Rakesh Kalva.

CONTINUING THE SEARCH

My ongoing search for honey badgers took me to the little-known town of Madanapalli in the Chittoor district. Here, with help from Suresh Jones, founder of LORIS, a local biodiversity conservation organisation, we undertook a day-long trek in the Tavalam Reserve Forest, where local tribals said they often saw honey badgers. Part of the vast and unexplored Eastern Ghats, the forest was more than just a little interesting. Some of the locals we interacted with said that honey badgers frequent the cattle manure pits just outside their village in search of grubs. Staking out these places, it occurred to me, could well provide insights into their feeding habits.

Though honey badgers are believed to be highly adaptable, with no specific habitat or diet preferences, they are nevertheless sparsely distributed over their range. This was reason enough to motivate me to get to know them better.

I, therefore, chose to obtain a basic understanding of their ecology. As a first step, I began by documenting and mapping the distribution of honey badgers in India, by plotting places where reliable sightings had been reported in the past. Over the next twelve months, I largely focused on collecting this data through a semi-structured, online question-based survey that I sent out to organisations and individuals across India. I asked respondents to report sightings, camera-trap images and any other secondary information they came across.

What did all this get me? Well, at this point, frankly… more questions than answers. I am left worried at the pace at which the habitat of these animals is being destroyed. If this uncontrolled loss of wildernesses continues apace, even the toughest, most resilient animals, like the honey badger might be lost to us before we even get to know them.

As a personal project, the author is mapping the distribution of honey badgers across India. Data was collected through an online questionnaire survey. Map not to scale, borders neither authenticated nor verified.

Honey badgers belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) and are the only species of the genus Mellivora. Although honey badgers have been classified as ‘least concern’ under the IUCN Red List data (IUCN 2008), the species seems to be rare and elusive in India and sparsely distributed over large areas. Few studies, especially on the foraging ecology, have been carried out in Southern Kalahari, Africa. They live in a wide variety of habitat types, from the arid and semi-arid areas of Africa, Middle East and India to the moist forests of Congo and India.

Generalist carnivores, they have an extremely wide diet. Colline Begg’s study in the deserts of Southern Kalahari, suggests that they consumed over 60 prey species, including venomous snakes such as cobras. Their primary quarry consists of insect larvae, scorpions, lizards, rodents, snakes and grubs. But they are not beyond raiding fox dens for their pups. Why are they named honey badger? Because they are often found raiding bee hives… but as in the case of raptors such as the Honey Buzzard, it’s probably the highly nutritious bee brood that they are keen on devouring.

Interestingly, one of the most popularly-cited examples of co-evolved mutualistic behaviour between birds and mammals is the suggested association between the Greater Honeyguide and the honey badger. The bird is said to ‘lead’ the badger to honey combs, but this is more anecdotal than based on any factual observations. Given that honey badgers are largely nocturnal and don’t have a great sense of hearing and vision, it is very unlikely that such an association exists.

Did You Know?

1. Honey badger females are called sows, males are called boars and their young are referred to as kits.

2. Commensalism between honey badgers and other opportunistic predators (two mammals and five birds), has been recorded. In particular the Pale Chanting Goshawk and black-backed jackal (Begg 2001).

3. Honey badgers have been observed using tools such as branches to reach food sources.

Author: Rakesh Kalva, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.

 
 
 

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