Trot, trot, trot. Stop, sniff, spray. Trot, trot, trot… There’s no mistaking a foraging jackal. Restless and relentless, it jogs purposefully through the bush, its canine radar attuned to every rustle in the grass and scent on the breeze. There’s no time to waste: if a jackal wore a watch, it would constantly be checking it.
You’d think we’d be impressed by such industriousness. Yet when people pile praise on Africa’s predators, jackals always seem to go unrecognised. The lion has its power, the leopard its stealth, the cheetah its speed and the wild dog its stamina. So what super power can the jackal boast?
The answer is something subtler: versatility. Jackals have a broad skill set, which includes the agility to snatch a dove, the nose to sniff out carrion, the punch to bring down a gazelle and the resourcefulness to survive on fruit and berries. And by foraging in pairs, these canny canines both boost their success rates and look out for each other in the process.
Small wonder that they seem to thrive in most habitats. Indeed, jackals are generally the most numerous predators encountered on safari, so perhaps our indifference is simply a case of familiarity breeding contempt.
Turn your binoculars on jackals, however, and you’ll find them endlessly fascinating. Adults form life-long monogamous pairs, which work in tandem to defend their territory. If you see a larger group, the extra adults will thus almost certainly be the breeding pair’s offspring from the year before. These overgrown adolescents work as ‘helpers’ to rear the next litter, postponing their own breeding ambitions while learning more tricks of the trade. Watch the group interactions closely and you’ll quickly work out who’s who from the distinctive canine body language of tail, ears and posture.
But which jackal are you watching? Africa is home to two similar-sized species: the black-backed (Canis mesomelas) and side-striped (Canis adustus). The former has a silver-grey saddle and black flank stripe; the latter is greyer, with a pale flank stripe and a white- rather than black-tipped tail.
They also differ in lifestyle: the more predatory black-backed likes open terrain while the secretive side-striped prefers more wooded, better watered areas, and features a higher proportion of plants and insects on its menu.
And, before you ask, the ‘golden jackal’ of north and east Africa is now known to be an entirely separate species from the Asian jackal (Canis aureus) of the same name. In fact, this animal is not a jackal at all. DNA research confirms that it is more closely related to the wolf. It has thus been renamed African golden wolf (Canis anthus).
Sadly, jackals’ many fascinating qualities have not redeemed them in the eyes of Africa’s farmers, who have long persecuted them as livestock killers. Their capacity to carry disease – notably rabies – has also not helped improve their image. But jackals are nothing if not resilient and today both Africa’s species are still faring reasonably well.
Try paying them a little more attention next time you’re on safari. In fact, why not treat yourself to a day of the jackal? You won’t be disappointed.
Read more about jackals in our six-page feature, by Mike Unwin, in issue 85 of Travel Africa magazine.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.