Exciting discovery of honey badger at UCT

03 May 2024 | Story Supplied. Photo Supplied. Read time 4 min.
A honey badger spotted above UCT’s main campus.
A honey badger spotted above UCT’s main campus.

Benjamin Wittenberg, a student at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), made the exciting discovery of a honey badger just above campus on 3 April. Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis), also known as ratels, can be found across Africa, from the Western Cape to Morrocco – but are not typically in cities or even on the Cape Peninsula.

The iNaturalist website has only one entry for honey badgers on the Cape Peninsula: an unconfirmed (and contested) suspected honey badger raid on a bee hive in 2014, and a note about a honey badger possibly being killed on Baden Powel drive around that time. A wildlife survey by SANParks last year on Table Mountain captured a single image of a lone honey badger. The UCT honey badger sighting is the first recorded sighting of a honey badger in the UCT vicinity.

Wittenberg, the graduate student conducting this year’s iCWild camera trap survey, said it was “super cool” to have recorded the honey badger. “The most common animals we spot are domestic cats and porcupines, and we sometimes see caracals, cape grysbok, mongooses and genets”, he said. “The arrival of the honey badger has enriched biodiversity on Table Mountain – and challenges the caracal’s status as a top predator in the area.”

The honey badger is well known for its swagger and ferocity. Even lions are wary of them. Honey badgers have loose skin which enables them to twist and confront any attacker with their sharp teeth and claws. They are adept at catching snakes (and of course raiding beehives), but they are successful generalist predators of small wildlife and even, according to some sheep farmers, lambs.

Breaking through barriers

Honey badgers’ adaptability routinely gets them into trouble with people. They are infamous for tearing down barriers and raiding animal coops. A honey badger recently broke into a pigeon-coop within the West Coast National Park (and was unfortunately shot). Closer to home, suburban security cameras in the Constantia area recently captured a honey badger squeezing under a gate and returning with a chicken! That honey badgers can break through even ‘predator-proof’ barriers was evident in De Hoop Nature Reserve when a honey badger killed 11 endangered African penguins – a major setback for their conservation. 

Dr Zoe Woodgate, who set up the original iCWild camera array, said it was yet to be established whether there was a sustainable population of honey badgers on the Cape Peninsula. “There are rumours of honey badger den in Silvermine Nature Reserve,” she said, “but as yet no sightings of any cubs”. Wittenberg agreed. “Honey badger cubs depend on their mothers for over a year, and we are certainly keeping a look out for a mother-cub pair.”

Breeding and expanding

If honey badgers have indeed started breeding and expanding on Table Mountain, this has implications for human–wildlife conflict on the urban edge. “Capetonians are used to conflict with baboons, and the occasional killing of pet cats by caracals,” said Professor Nicoli Nattrass, “but honey badgers will provide new challenges for people who keep poultry, rabbits, pigeons and perhaps pet cats.

“We need the help of ‘citizen science’.”

Honey badgers are among the identified species at risk including caracal, Cape clawless otter, Cape Eagle Owl, large spotted genet, and water mongoose.

If anyone has seen a honey badger, please report it on iNaturalist or email iCWild researchers: Ben Wittenberg or Nicoli Nattrass.

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