“I have never seen this animal in this forest, in all my 15 years of experience!” As a seasoned forest watcher who has traversed every trodden path and otherwise in the dry-deciduous forest of Bannerghatta, this statement came as a shock to me. Quickly leaving the other camera-traps we had just retrieved, I rushed over to my colleague’s laptop to see what novel animal our trap had captured. It was amazing to witness a honey-badger (also known as Ratel) for the first time in Bannerghatta National Park!
Bannerghatta lies in the Eastern Ghats of southern India, and is one of the lesser-known protected areas of Karnataka. It is just 25 km south of one of India’s fastest developing metropolitan cities, Bangalore, with the north and north-west fringes of the park bordering urban areas. As you move southwards, the landscape adjoining the national park turns to agricultural practices. Bannerghatta is fraught with many of the challenges that protected areas in our country face; however, being so close to an expanding city, the anthropogenic pressures on its natural resources are much higher. The park is also highly linear due to habitat fragmentation, with certain areas having a width of merely 500 metres. This highly irregular shape makes the boundaries of the park more vulnerable and exposed to forest-farm interferences and human disturbances. This is thereby assumed to also have an impact on the diversity and richness of animal life that is found within the park. To therefore find a honey-badger—an animal that has not been widely documented in the state of Karnataka—in this fissured land of Bannerghatta, was comparable to the fable of Ali Baba chancing upon a cave full of treasure.
Trying to catch a tiger, and finding a by-catch of a badger.
In 2015, we became aware of the presence of a free-ranging tiger in Bannerghatta. This was wonderful news to us, as Bannerghatta was never known to be a tiger occupied land. There were previous anecdotal records in 2009 and 2012 of the presence of the large cat in Bannerghatta; however, the evidence of their occurrence was sporadic. The assumption was that these animals possibly wandered in from the adjoining tiger areas which form a contiguous landscape with the Brahmagiri-Nilgiri Eastern Ghats. However, in 2015, there were many direct sightings of a tiger by forest personnel, and also high instances of indirect evidences to show that this large cat was extensively exploring different areas of Bannerghatta.
Therefore, to gain more insights into this animal and what brought it to Bannerghatta, we decided to photo-document it, which would give us vital information such as its estimated age and sex. As part of the survey, camera-traps were placed along trails where the movement of the animal was previously recorded in the various wildlife ranges of the park. Then on 31 October, 2015, almost 7 months after the first indirect evidence of the large cat was recorded in Bannerghatta, we captured a grainy image of an adult male tiger at Bannerghatta’s Harohalli wildlife range. In this particular location, we also got images of the honey-badger, a wonderful by-catch of the target animal we intended to record.
The myth and reality of the honey-badger.
Realising that we had a honey-badger (Mellivora capensis) in our midst, I set out to understand more about this animal. When it came to India, there was a lot of anecdotal information about the animal’s behaviour. R.I Pocock, in his ‘Fauna of British India’ (1941), writes about Hardwicke’s account in 1808, of honey-badgers visiting and digging up graves and consuming the recently deceased in the area along the river Yamuna. This was later discredited as information based on personal accounts rather than objective findings. S.H Prater, in his ‘The Book of Indian Mammals’, states that most of the vernacular names given to the animal are based on this myth. He also cautions the reader that these observations on its “habits” could have been made by someone with little scientific temper.
In certain parts of Central India, the honey-badger is locally called kabar bijju, which loosely translates to ‘grave badger’. This name is based on the belief that the honey-badger digs up graves with its long fore-claws (much like those of the sloth-bear) and feeds on corpses. However, within the same geographic location, the term kabar bijju is also used to refer to the Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), which is assumed to be attributed with the same crypt digging tendencies. This interchange of names for different species possibly highlights the shy nature of the honey-badger and the limited knowledge and interactions that people have with it.
Not much is known about the honey-badger, with information on it being as elusive as the animal itself. Except for studies emerging mostly from Africa on its habits and behaviour, much of the scientific literature from the rest of the world is restricted to its distribution and abundance. Honey-badgers are found across most of Africa, parts of central and western Asia, India, and the foothills of Nepal. In India, they are distributed across western and central India, and some southern states. They are found across a variety of habitats and are known to be generalist feeders, subsisting on fruits, berries, reptiles and smaller mammals.
The honey-badger is truly the stuff of legends – based on information from Africa, the animal has earned the reputation of being fearless, often fighting off larger carnivores such as lions, leopards and hyenas despite the obvious size disparity. There also have been recorded instances in the Kalahari, of the honey-badger being bitten by venomous snakes which form a part of their diet, only to sleep off the effects of the poison and resume whatever activity they were engaged in. To say the least, the honey-badger is a remarkable animal! And without substantial scientific studies about their habits and ecology, we could keep guessing an understanding of their behaviour, walking a fine line between reality and fiction.
The badger in Bannerghatta.
Since 2015, we have intermittently conducted camera-trapping exercises in Bannerghatta National Park to understand the population demography and habitat use of Asian Elephants, these locations being restricted to certain resource-based locations such as water-bodies, patrolling roads and salt-licks. We hadn’t come across honey-badgers in these areas. Then on the 09 March, 2018, we again unexpectedly captured a badger in the Bannerghatta wildlife range of the national park, a geodesic distance of almost 8 km from where it was first documented. Since then, we have had seven sightings of the animal in the same location over a period of two weeks, possibly of one individual on multiple captures. Whether this was the same animal that was first documented in Harohalli wildlife range is impossible to say, as individual identification of honey-badgers through their coat is not possible due to the lack of discernible markings.
We are also quite uncertain at this stage whether Bannerghatta harbours a localised population of honey-badgers or whether individuals from Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) of Karnataka, south of Bannerghatta, are exploring areas to their north. In 2014, a study found 41 instances of honey-badgers being recorded across 31 locations in CWS, as written in this article ‘Ratel’s Night Out’. There were seven images even showing the animal in pairs, which could have possibly been a mother-cub pairing or maybe even a courting couple, indicating a breeding population. Although known to be partially territorial in nature, could there be a possibility of individuals from CWS moving into newer territories such as Bannerghatta? Or does Bannerghatta have a resident population already? Only future studies will tell.
All the camera-trap images of the honey-badger that we have recorded show the animal to be active during the night, which correlates to findings in CWS. It is believed that in areas of disturbance and high human footfall, these animals restrict their activities to the nocturnal hours. Given that over 150 park edge communities abut Bannerghatta’s boundary and certain areas of the park are disturbed due to cattle-grazing and public thoroughfares, these animals may only be active in Bannerghatta under the cover of darkness. While this elusive nature of theirs may have protected them from external manmade threats such as poaching and accidental killings, for researchers like us learning more about their behaviour, this poses a challenge. Maybe for us to shed light on these legendary animals, we need to step out in the darkness into the cryptic world of the honey-badger.