The honey badger is primarily a carnivorous species, and has few natural predators because of its thick skin and ferocious defensive abilities. Because of the toughness and looseness of their skin, honey badgers are very difficult to kill with dogs. Their skin is hard to penetrate, and its looseness allows them to twist and turn on their attackers when held. The only safe grip on a honey badger is on the back of the neck. The skin is also tough enough to resist several machete blows. The only sure way of killing them quickly is through a blow to the skull with a club or a shot to the head with a gun, as their skin is almost impervious to arrows and spears.
The honey badger has a head that is small and flat, with a short muzzle. The eyes are small, and the ears are little more than ridges on the skin, another possible adaptation to avoiding damage while fighting.
Honey badgers are notoriously fearless and tough animals, having been known to savagely attack their enemies when escape is impossible. Bee stings, porcupine quills, and animal bites rarely penetrate their skin. If horses, cattle, or Cape buffalos intrude upon a ratel’s burrow, it will attack them. They are tireless in combat and can wear out much larger animals in physical confrontations. The aversion of most predators toward hunting honey badgers has led to the theory that the countershaded coats of cheetah kittens evolved in imitation of the honey badger’s colouration to ward off predators.
Honey badgers are reputed to go for the scrotum when attacking large animals. The first published record of this behaviour was a circumstantial account by Stevenson-Hamilton where a badger reportedly castrated an adult Buffalo. Other animals alleged to have been emasculated by honey badgers include wildebeest, waterbuck, kudu, zebra and man.
Honey badgers will eat insects, frogs, tortoises, rodents, turtles, lizards, eggs, and birds. Honey badgers have even been known to chase away young lions and take their kills. They may hunt frogs and rodents such as gerbils and ground squirrels by digging them out of their burrows. They kill and eat snakes, even highly venomous or large ones such as cobras. They have been known to dig up human corpses in India. They devour all parts of their prey, including skin, hair, feathers, flesh and bones.
The honey badger possesses an anal pouch which, unusual among mustelids, is reversible, a trait shared with hyenas. The smell of the pouch is reportedly “suffocating”, and may assist in calming bees when raiding beehives. It is often suggested that badgers release scent from their anal glands to subdue bees or cause them to vacate the hive. The anal secretion is said to be “unendurable” and acts “like an anaesthetic, causing some bees to flee.
Honey badgers are intelligent animals and are one of a few species known to be capable of using tools. In the 1997 documentary series “Land of the Tiger”, a honey badger in India was filmed making use of a tool; the animal rolled a log and stood on it to reach a kingfisher fledgling stuck up in the roots coming from the ceiling in an underground cave.