If there’s any doubt as to which is the toughest creature in Kruger, a sighting I had one morning near Skukuza should settle any scores on the matter.
That morning, we had taken the gravel road towards N’waswitshaka waterhole to see if anything exciting was happening there. Barely 500 metres down that road, the excitement found us instead. A cluster of cars had all stopped, and it wasn’t long before we discovered what they were looking at: on the side of the road, seemingly untouched, lay the carcass of a large impala.
A man in one of the cars wound down his window and explained to us that the impala had been killed by a leopard, but as more and more cars had arrived on the scene, the noise of the chatter and the idling diesel engines had forced the leopard to abandon its meal and disappear off into the bush.
Some cars decided that there were better things to see elsewhere and soon pulled away. But we were in no hurry. Knowing that the leopard would be unlikely to just abandon its hard-earned meal, we decided to sit and wait for its return.
A good 20 minutes passed and, unless you counted the flies, nothing had come for the impala. The bush was quiet, the temperature was rising and just as we were wondering whether we really had the patience to sit and wait hours for a leopard that was probably sleeping off the morning’s exertion deep under cover half a kilometre away, there was a distinct rustling in the bush. Whatever it was, it was coming straight for the carcass with some determination.
Everyone jumped to attention. Our patience had paid off – the leopard was surely coming back for its meal. But then, from the depths of the dry grass, the source of the rustling revealed itself with a lot of attitude. It was not the leopard at all. Instead, out marched a honey badger with a determined swagger.
Not much phases a honey badger, and no amount of excited chatter nor the click-click-click of the cameras from the assembled audience was going to bother it. This tough guy was there for a reason – breakfast.
When the honey badger approached the carcass, the head of the dead impala was facing the road. This clearly did not suit its plans. It sank its teeth into the impala’s stomach, and then, like one of those tiny tug boats that somehow turns around a giant cruise liner, it swiftly spun the impala around 180° with astonishing ease. I had always known that honey badgers were vicious little things, but I had no idea they were anywhere near as powerful as this. However, that was just the warm-up.
With the carcass now facing the opposite direction, the honey badger grabbed it by the neck and, like a dog with a blanket in its mouth, dragged the carcass – which probably weighed a good 50 or 60 kilograms – further into the bush with such ease that we could barely believe what we were seeing.
Satisfied it had found a nice spot comfortably away from the crowds and with a little bit of shade, the honey badger released its jaws from the dead impala’s neck, scuttled around to the belly area and wasted no time in tearing right into it.
We stayed and watched, fascinated, for another hour. In that time the honey badger left the carcass and disappeared a number of times, but it always returned to feed a little more. Once, it even scurried across the road – going to where, I have no idea – before doubling back a few minutes later, straight to the carcass.
All the while, a large bateleur eagle was watching impatiently from a nearby low branch, desperate to get stuck in too. But despite there being enough meat to feed 100 birds of prey, this eagle had decided it was going nowhere near that honey badger. Given what I had already seen of this particular specimen, it was, I thought, probably a very wise decision.
This article was originally published in 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of 101 jaw-dropping stories as compiled by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The author of this particular tale, Gabi Hotz has visited reserves throughout Africa (with the exception of the Serengeti, which is still on her bucket list) but feels that nothing, as yet, compares to Kruger. She loves the unpredictability of the park and visits between five and seven times a year. She is an industrial psychologist, with a Masters degree under her belt, but hopes to one day pursue a career in conservation.
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