Picking up from last week it’s a pity most of us in the tropics have neither encountered a wolverine nor its innumerable legends. To see this superhero of the animal kingdom in the flesh, carrying its diminutive size with a gigantic attitude, like a viking warrior walking fearlessly amongst giants, is a sight to embolden quaking hearts and fortify flagging spirits. The beast and its mythical aura is a sight both sublime and surreal, and our forests and vales are poorer for the fact that in spite of our great faunal riches, the wolverine doesn’t call our country its home.
But wait! So what if we have no wolverine... We have a creature even braver, and perhaps some would say, way smarter... In fact, most wildlife experts would call this animal the bravest and most fearless of all the creatures that walk the earth. The massive wild water buffalo, built like a muscular tank and huge sweeping horns, the giant with the impassive eyes that could stare down a tiger with a mere shake of the head, is a contender. Others say the wild boar, with its slashing dagger like tusks and barrel like body and beady eyes that burn with rage and dauntless courage when cornered is the stuff of legends that tigers tell their cubs about at bed-time and ask them to be wary of.
But the animal that breasts the tape in the courage race ahead of these two or any other amongst creatures great and small is an animal as unassuming in stature as its distant northern cousin, the wolverine. Another of the Mustelidae (that’s the cool and officious sounding Latin name for the weasel family) family, the ratel or honey badger, though a giant amongst weasels at about 10-20kgs is still a rather small animal that usually lives its life in the shadow of the bigger, more glamorous carnivores. No tourists to Ranthambore or Bandhavgarh would ask their guides for tracks of the honey badger and nor would they come away disappointed at not having seen one. But had they insisted they might have seen one of the most amazing sights in all of jungledom…
It is said, admittedly far more often of the ratel in Africa than the Indian subspecies, that a unique and special bird called the honeyguide would often lead the ratel to a honey-comb. Now you don’t need a genius to tell you that honey has got to be a honey badger’s favourite food. And so the badger doesn’t need to be told twice. Off it goes after the bird in search of wild honey and when it finds the comb, without a moment’s hesitation, up he goes the chosen tree and to the branch from which hangs the comb. With powerful claws it rips the hive open and digs into both honey and the larvae in the comb. The bees could buzz and sting all they like but the ratel’s tough hide is almost impervious to most bee stings. The honey badger has its fill of honey and the rest and then leaves the scraps for the honeyguide bird. Some say this tale of teamwork is but a mere myth while others claim to have seen it with their very eyes.
While the jury is out on the authenticity of this legend about this super cousin to that super hero called the wolverine, what is beyond doubt is the toughness and pound for pound super strength of the ratel. Like its cousin, the wolverine, there is nothing the ratel cannot climb, there is nothing the ratel wouldn’t eat and there is no animal that walks alive that can ever have claimed to have scared off a ratel. It might defer to common sense and make way for a boar or a buffalo. It might even grudgingly return a leopard its kill when the two face off over what might rightfully be the leopard’s but when cornered, a ratel would lunge and fight even a lion and more often than not emerge unscathed with a moral victory and a prized cut from the kill to show for it.
I have often asked around for the ratel in national parks across the country and while most guides would tell you that its around somewhere but it sure isn’t easy to spot from a safari vehicle. One reason for that is that especially in India, the ratel is primarily a nocturnal animal. Th ough few have seen it, all who have, have a huge amount of respect for the feisty little badger.
About a decade and a half ago, BBC and Valmik Thapar created a stunningly gorgeous nature documentary series called Land of the Tiger. I had just graduated and joined work at the time, and one of the first things I spent my first salary on, besides the customary gift s for family and family-to-be, was on a video collection of the Land of the Tiger. Many subsequent Sunday afternoons were spent listening to Thapar’s mellifluous and intense entreaties for conserving what remains of our magnificent natural heritage and watching one of the most visually enchanting documentaries of its time. And if you ask me today as to what are the most enduring memories from those Sundays, I would tell you about three such – one would have to be the sight of a snow leopard patting down a stone to keep things quiet as it stealthily slithered down a rocky slope against the inky blue skies and the blue hued snow on the mountain crag. Then there was the battle at dawn between two of the handsomest creatures of the jungle – a pair of massively muscled gaur bulls fighting for the right to a harem of females.. their great forms tearing up the grassy meadows and their bellows rending the misty clouds of the Western ghats to ribboned shred – primal and sublime. But the cutest and most interesting scene of all the six episodes was the montage that showed a ratel on a hunt…
It has been a while since I last saw it so forgive me if I make a mistake but I hope to keep the moment’s essence intact… Drawn by the distress calls of a bird a badger had located a kingfisher’s burrow on a sand bank or cave of sorts that had collapsed in the heat. The fledgling was caught in an overhanging network of roots that were sticking out of the sandbank/cave. The badger tried to reach the fledgling and it stood up on its hind legs and waved its paws but the chick hung on for dear life. Undeterred, the badger looked around and found a dry log lying a few yards away. It threw the chick an “I’ll be back” look, shuffled off towards the log, rolled and nudged it to a spot right under the roots, climbed up on the log, made adjustments, got another log, and then stood up on its hind legs and with a little stretch reached the kingfisher, grabbed it in its mouth, dropped to the floor and sauntered away to enjoy a well earned meal.
There you have it now – tough as nails, super strong for its size, courage to match a pride of lions with a more than a little left to spare and smarts that rival the creature’s great strength. How many animals other than the apes or dolphins are as good at solving problems and using tools? I say the ratel deserves a superhero character to call his own just like his cuz, the wolverine.
If you remember the wolverine, and here I mean the comicbook and silver screen hero, you would remember that one of his greatest powers was his ability to heal his own body. Now forest guides in honey badger territory would tell you that the honey badger, due to its loose skin and tough hide, is almost immune to attacks from most predator for it can turn around on its attacker and inflict a nasty bite with its powerful jaws but what is most stunning is the way it reacts to cobras and other venomous snakes. The badger seeks out cobras for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And none of the nift y fencing footwork of the mongoose while snake fighting for our badger. Th is guy just barrels in and bites the snake’s head off. And what happens if it is fanged in the process? When the venom makes its way into its system, the animal collapses and rolls over, like as if it’s dead. For a few minutes its out cold, and then within minutes, it recovers, comes to, gives his body a shake and then calmly goes back to munching chunks off the half eaten snake. That’s a feat even Marvel’s Wolverine will find tough to beat.
Next time you go tiger watching, remember that there’s more to machismo than stripes and a roar, and there are greater heroes out here in the wild than on screen. The honey badger is one of the few mammals who by dint of their courage, charisma and wits has managed to stay out of the endangered species list… let it not stay out of your ‘must catch on camera’ list next time you hit the trail, for there are few to hold a candle to the ratel.. for beware, it might bite off more than you think it could chew!