The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust uses camera traps to monitor the behaviour of large carnivores, and for the past five months we have had cameras set up along dirt roads through the bush to record the responses of predators to chemical scents. The cameras detect animals from their body heat, and take 30 second videos as animals move past. Because they work round the clock, day after day, every so often the cameras catch something that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of animal behaviour. While I was checking through videos from one of the cameras I had a “did I really see that” moment – and replaying the video and cross checking against the other cameras at the same site confirmed that I did; there really was a record-breaking group of honey badgers – the charismatic don’t give a shit small carnivore.
A video that was shot in the early morning on the 17th of May this year opens as honey badger trots past the camera and out of sight, which is nothing unusual. After a few seconds it is followed by another one; we quite often see up to four honey badgers trotting past and so two together is a routine sighting, but shadowy shapes in the background quickly turn into another four badgers heading in the same direction, and now I am really paying attention because I have just seen six honey badgers in less than 10 seconds, and the biggest honey badger group ever seen in southern Africa had only five members. There is more to come; another badger trots down the road, bringing the total to seven, and then there is a pause as the rest of the video plays out. A group of seven honey badgers is interesting enough to copy the video file to another folder to check again later, and maybe circulate to some other researchers to get their comments. Then I open the next video in the sequence, to see yet another honey badger trot out of sight !. I check the video’s time stamp, and it had begun just 10 seconds after the previous one finished – this eighth badger was following only a short distance behind the leading seven. Even then they are not finished; badgers nine and ten come into view and trot past, ten honey badgers passed the camera in less than a minute !. You can see the two videos on our YouTube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndaLDg69we8.
Ten honey badgers in a group is a truly exceptional sighting – equivalent to a pride of 50 lions, or a clan of 100 spotted hyaenas. In the southern Kalahari, which is the only place that anyone has studied honey badgers in detail, they are nearly always seen alone, or sometimes a mother with her offspring, and the biggest recorded group there was five males. The most honey badgers anyone has ever seen at one time was 12, and they were scattered around a cattle kraal in Kenya, foraging for dung beetle larvae. Recording such a big group, and the high frequency of videos with three or four badgers in them makes me think that their numbers are a lot higher around the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana than they are in the harsh conditions of the southern Kalahari.
How many honey badgers are in our study area, why they would have joined up like this, and what they were doing, are just three of the many things that nobody knows about Africa’s wildlife. If we had the resources they are among the questions we would love to be able to answer.
Peter Apps, PHD