Honey badger don’t care. That is the catch phrase from a viral YouTube video that uses National Geographic Wild tv footage with new, smart aleck (and occasionally vulgar) narration to go along with scenes of the honey badger running backwards, chasing a jackal, and eating a cobra that stings it (“oh, the honey badgers are just crazy”). The parody has garnered over 22 million views since its upload on January 18, inspired a badger-centric commercial for pistachio nuts (using footage of the real animal and a puppet that cracks open a can of nuts with a cobra), and shaped the discourse on Capitol Hill. This past week, Louisiana Senator David Vitter, speaking about a football bet with another senator, made this comment, referring to a Louisiana State University player nicknamed the honey badger: “It really doesn’t matter who LSU’s opponent is, because, as we say in Louisiana, the honey badger takes what he wants.”
“Anything that gets the badgers air time is a good thing,” says conservationist Colleen Begg, who researched and protected honey badgers in South Africa with her husband, Keith, from 1996 until 2004 and, with Keith and David and Carol Hughes, filmed the footage of honey badgers for National Geographic that appears in the YouTube video.
Begg currently runs an independent lion conservation project at the Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique, helping to “protect people from lions, and lions from people—and other carnivores.” We asked Begg to take her thoughts off lions for a moment in order to educate us about her old pal the honey badger.
Do honey badgers have bad attitudes?
Absolutely! But they need to, because they’re often surprised.
Honey badgers are very vulnerable. Often they’re digging—they’re quite small [weighing 10 to 20 pounds), they don’t see very well, their noses are in the ground—and they’re completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. When they eventually realize that the leopard is standing right behind them, they just put on this incredible show to try to protect themselves. They do the same in reaction to humans.
So that is where the bad attitude comes from. It’s a protective mechanism.
Are they really the most “fearless” animal in all the animal kingdom (as the 2002 Guinness Book of World Records suggests)?
That’s a hard one. I’m biased, because I think badgers are amazing. I think wolverines would be a close second [to honey badgers as the most fearless animals]. Wolverines are very powerful for their size. Both wolverines and badgers take on prey much bigger than them.
Honey badgers are known to take cheetah cubs out of dens, raptors out of nests. All of that makes the adults of the youngsters very angry. The honey badgers have to interact with adults when they’re going into those places, and [the adults] could do serious damage to the badgers. But once the badger is fixated on something, it seldom deviates from what it’s trying to get.
Do honey badgers worry about being attacked by other animals?
Well, if a predator is trying to eat them—or they’re trying to eat prey—then yes. Leopards and lions will eat honey badgers, if they can catch them. Although honey badgers fight really hard. An old female badger will fight for an hour with a leopard that is eight or ten times her weight. If [the badger is] cornered, it’ll just go for it [and attack]. Just as often as a lion will catch a honey badger, a honey badger will actually fight off a lion. We’ve seen them chase off lions just by putting up a huge display, growling and releasing a scent similar to a skunk.
What about human-badger interactions?
At the moment, the only thing to which the badgers are really vulnerable is people. Humans and honey badgers have always competed for honey. Honey gatherers don’t like badgers and will kill them if they find them. In the Western Cape [of South Africa], where you have commercial beekeepers, they hate honey badgers. The main conservation threat to honey badgers is people poisoning and trapping them.
Do honey badgers use tools to obtain food, for example, using a cobra to crack open pistachios as in the ad?
Absolutely not. Honey badger catches things. Bee larvae, scorpions, poisonous snakes like the Black Mamba and King Cobra. Pretty much anything. We’ve never seen them eat fruit, other than melons for moisture. The honey badger is a carnivore. He uses his long claws to get into crevices and catch prey. He’s got extremely powerful jaws and digging ability. That’s really all he needs.