Our Rare Look at the Lion’s Worst Friend

Photo by Stefan Vantongerloo of Geel, Belgium

Our seasoned guide at Tau Game Lodge, Morah-Leigh Cooper, manages to convey enthusiasm for sights that we all know she has seen many times before, like lions and elephants and giraffes — oh boy! And these standard sights in the Madikwe Game Reserve really are impressive.  But less than an hour into today’s 5:30 a.m. game drive, Morah kicked the enthusiasm level to 11 when she heard on the two-way radio that fellow guide Yolandi Sutherland had spotted a honey badger.

After some false starts, we finally connected with this misleadingly named predator.  He doesn’t eat honey, and he’s anything but sweet in disposition.  The honey badger weighs about 15 kilograms but, Morah told us, he will take on a 200-kilogram lion with ferocious energy and relentless attack.  We followed this one for about an hour as he motored down the dirt road and then alongside us in the brush, apparently hunting something.  If he was the least bit nervous about a Land Cruiser with nine people in it following him, the honey badger did not show it.

“This is my sighting of the year,” Morah exuded at one point as our encounter with the honey badger unfolded. “This is awesome!”  When our vehicle met up with that of Yolandi Sutherland, Morah let her know what an amazing bit of spotting she’d done.

I’ve noticed in our game drives in South Africa how common it is for descriptions of the animals to connect with tales or jokes about humans.  There is an endless number of witty things to say about males and females, based on the mating habits of everything from tortoises to rhinos.  I think this is part of the deep satisfaction of spending time observing wild animals in the company of a knowledgeable guide.  At some level, we share elements of every life form that came before us in the evolutionary spiral, right?  So what can we learn from the swaggering little killer we saw this morning?

“Don’t underestimate small things,” Morah told us. “Someone can be the smallest person in the class and take on a whole bunch of big bullies, but he’ll still win. The honey badger takes you back.”

We finally parted company with the honey badger as his presence was rattling a pair of klipspringer, small antelope who are amazing rock climbers. Our guide beamed with a satisfied grin. Her comment summed up a truth we’re learning each time we clamber up into the high seats of the Land Cruiser here at Madikwe:

“So you never know what comes around the next corner, eh?”

Midway through this morning's game drive, Morah set out drinks and treats for us beside the Land Cruiser.

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