The smaller carnivores of the Singita Kruger Concession – The Mustelids

Kruger National Park | December 2017

The family Mustelidae consists of various small carnivorous creatures throughout the world including weasels, minks, martens, badgers, wolverines, otters and polecats, amongst others. Most of these creatures are short-legged with short ears, a fairly long body and stout, broad skulls. Many of these animals have anal glands that give off a secretion that has a strong scent. In southern Africa this family consists of the honey badger, the striped polecat, the striped weasels and two species of otters, namely the spotted-necked otter and the Cape clawless otter. In the Singita Kruger Concession the dominant mustelid is the honey badger. Cape clawless otters are seen on very rare occasions in the N’wanetsi and Sweni Rivers (although usually the only sign of them in the area are the strangely-shaped footprints on the muddy banks of the rivers). Striped polecats (also known as zorillas) could possibly also occur in the area but have not yet been seen on the concession.

Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) are very well-known throughout the world, particularly since you-tube videos on the internet have shown how tough and intelligent these creatures are (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c36UNSoJenI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0wi7Ugct1w).

These creatures are also known as ratels, which is an Afrikaans onomatopoeic name describing the sounds that they make particularly when annoyed (it sounds like a rattle). Honey badgers are stout-bodied and are boldly coloured with black undersides, grey on the back and on the top of the head and a white band between the two. This contrasting colouration serves as a warning signal to any creature that may be foolish enough to mess with it. Honey Badgers are extremely tough, tenacious animals that have big attitudes and much in the way of self-defence. They are so tough that the South African Defence Force even named one of the armoured vehicles after it – The Ratel. Honey Badgers are so tough that even lions tend to avoid them!

These creatures have sharp teeth (similar to that of a dog), thick skin that tends to be loose around the body so that if another predator does get hold of them they can turn around and still fight back, long claws (like those of a wolverine) that are strong enough to break open termite heaps and open up tree trunks to get to hidden bees nests and anal glands that can excrete a nasty, noxious scent to deter any enemies (this secretion is even said to cause bees to become drowsy, allowing the badgers to raid the hives to get to the honey and bee larvae). On top of that they have an attitude that rivals that of a pit-bull. There are many stories of honey badgers confronting lions and even stealing from the carcasses that lions were feeding on, driving the lions away with their fierce attitude. There is even a story of a honey badger that confronted and killed a belligerent Cape Buffalo bull by biting off its testicles and leaving it to die from blood-loss and shock.

Honey badgers are medium to small carnivores with a shoulder height of 23 to 28 cm and a mass of up to 14.5 kilograms. They feed on a wide range of prey items including insects, insect larvae, small invertebrates such as scorpions and spiders, birds, rodents, lizards and other reptiles including highly venomous snakes such as cobras and mambas. Danielle Drabeck, a University of Minnesota grad student, studied the honey badger’s seeming immunity to snake-bite venom and found that the badgers had genetic mutations in the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that protect against snake venom (particularly against neurotoxic venoms that affect the breathing mechanisms of mammals). Bee stings also seem to have a reduced effect on the badger’s system.

Honey badgers are usually seen wandering around the bush either alone, or in small groups where a female may be seen in the company of her offspring. They tend to be nocturnal in habits, although we do see more of them on cold winter days, when they spend more time foraging during daylight hours and when the grass is shorter allowing for better visibility. They can become a bit of a problem in camps where they tend to raid bins and rubbish cages.

Honey badgers are known to have a symbiotic relationship with a bird called a “honey-guide”. The Honey-guide, when it has found a bee hive, will look for a creature such as a honey-badger or human and guide them to the bees nest by giving a distinctive chittering call and flying to and fro from the “assistant” directing them to where the bees are. The honey-guide is unable to open up the tree-trunk or hollow in which the bees are living and therefore relies on the badger or human to do that for them. After the badger or person has finished getting the honey-comb the honey-guide is then able to get the scraps that are left over (particularly the bee larvae, which they feed on). The San people have a customary warning that states that if a person follows the honey-guide and does not leave any scraps for the bird the next time it will lead them to a lion or black mamba.

The honey badger print show long claws, while the cape clawless otter print shows bulbous fingers (see pictures above).

Cape clawless otters (Aonyx capensis) are very seldom seen in the concession. They are fairly large, long animals with a shoulder height of 20 to 30 cm and a weight of up to 20 kilograms. They are generally brown in colour with white on the belly, throat and sides of the face. The fur is sleek in order to reduce resistance in the water. The Cape clawless otter has a fairly long tail and very dextrous hands and fingers (with short nail-like claws). They are generally active at dusk and dawn and can be seen swimming in rivers looking for fish, frogs, mussels and crabs. They can tolerate reasonably muddy waters, using their hands and fingers to find prey. Otters tend to avoid waters with large numbers of crocodiles or other large aquatic predators, or rivers where the current is too strong. They can also be found along the coast swimming in the sea close to the shore or in the tidal pools. They are usually seen singly or in pairs (although a female can be found with two to three young with her). Otters have been seen to steal fish from crocodiles by biting their tails, forcing the reptiles to drop their prey as they try and turn to defend themselves. The otters are quick enough to avoid the teeth of the crocodiles and sneak around to grab the fallen fish and quickly race away. This can be a very dangerous game to play!