Colours of Wildlife: Black-Backed Jackal

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Black-Backed Jackal

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Black-Backed jackal by Willem.

Here is a species I know very well, the Black-Backed Jackal, Canis mesomelas. When we arrived in Pietersburg in 1980, our house was situated at the edge of the wilderness. Back then, almost every evening and night we would hear the jackals howling, ‘whaaaaa-ha-ha-ha-ha’. Today the suburbs have spread over most of the erstwhile savannah, but there are still jackals here and there. They are very adaptable, and masters of hiding and staying away from humans. But where they are protected, such as in the Kruger National Park and other nature reserves, they can be quite bold, running around in the open during daytime. They are among the most common carnivores here in South Africa.

Elegant and Intelligent

In Afrikaans we call this a ‘Rooijakkals’ or ‘Red Jackal’ on account of its reddish-brown fur, which can be quite bright. In addition to that, it has a mane of long, white-tipped black hair over its neck, shoulders and back, and a bushy black tail. Its visual conspicuousness goes along with its boldness. It has an alert posture, and most of the time it moves along in a light-footed trot, its head held high and its ears perked. It has an appearance of elegance, with its slender muzzle, long legs and neatly groomed fur. It is the most lightly-built member of the genus Canis.

These jackals are also clearly very intelligent. They can learn to avoid traps set out for them, and manage very well to evade both humans and larger carnivores. In rich environments, they will have to share with leopards, hyenas, lions and wild dogs, all of which are much bigger and stronger. Black-backed jackals have developed a social system that might be termed ‘cryptic packs’. That is, they are usually seen individually, but actually live socially. The ‘packs’ are however very dispersed, so you’ll only see one or two of its members at a time. Somehow they manage to communicate with each other and help each other to find food and avoid danger. When individual jackals meet, they will perform behaviours establishing dominance, as is usual with pack predators. They are able to rapidly come together to hunt, or when there’s a large carcass to feed on. But then they disperse again. Therefore, they never attract the attention of larger predators as they would if they went around as big, conspicuous hunting packs. If an individual jackal happens to meet a larger predator, it will yap loudly to intimidate it, but this yapping can then also be heard by other jackals far away, alerting them to the presence of the predator.

Here in South Africa, the jackal is the star of a group of folk tales that have become known as 'Jakkals-en-Wolfstories' ('Jackal and Wolf Stories'). In these stories the jackal is always the clever and wily one, and outwits the stupid wolf (actually, a hyena, since true wolves don't occur here) time after time, often in quite cruel pranks. These stories have originated with the Afrikaans people from memories of Flemish and Dutch animal tales and fables, but adapted to the animals and landscape of South Africa. The San people and other African peoples also feature the jackal, but in these tales, it is typically a more cowardly character, and often gets outwitted itself by the truly consummate trickster, the hare.

Flexible Feeders

Like the African Civet, black-backed jackals are omnivores. They will catch small prey animals, and can overpower bigger ones up to the size of an adult Impala, by cooperating in a pack. They are fast and agile, catching small animals by sneaking up on them and pouncing, and catching large animals by running them down and dispatching them with their sharp canine teeth. But jackals also eat lots of insects, and will eat fruit of a variety of trees and shrubs. They eat grass as well, but don't digest it; the grass itself may help with the digestion of other food items. Jackals also feed on carrion. They will wait at a lion's catch until the lions have finished feeding, and then take the scraps that are left on the bones. They will chase away vultures, but themselves may be chased away from the leftovers by hyenas. Their agility and boldness even helps them to sometimes dash in and grab a chunk of meat from right under the nose of a lion! When they get access to a carcass with lots of meat left – or if they should manage to catch something big on their own – they will gorge themselves and hide away the rest of the meat in buried caches.

They are aided by excellent senses of sight, hearing and smell. A jackal that is actively hunting will slow down and walk, looking, listening and smelling for anything that it can get. Jackals can smell carrion over distances of up to 1 km/0.6 miles, perhaps more.

Puppies in Winter

These jackals pair up for life. For dens they use the burrows of Aardvarks or dig their own; they may also use small caves or crevices between rocks. When using aardvark holes they will enlarge them and dig alternate exits they can use if they need to flee. The babies are born in these; a litter can consist of 1 to 6 puppies. They are usually born in late winter or early spring. This is actually a time when there's not much food around for most animals – but these jackals might be exploiting this fact, because of being able to quickly find animals that have died of thirst or hunger.

The puppies stay in the den for the first three weeks, their mother coming to suckle them after hunting. She may during this time for some reason switch to a new den; she will call the puppies as if she would when feeding them, but then lead them to the new den. Her mate may guard any puppies she leaves behind until she can return for them.

Soon the puppies will be fed with meat. At first their mother regurgitates bits of meat for them; later she will bring small prey items and put them down inside the den for the puppies to eat. The male will also bring them food. Sometimes there are extra helpers, usually some of the couple's older children, who will help feeding and guarding the puppies, which gives them a much better chance of survival. The helpers also groom and play with the puppies and teach them hunting skills.

At the age of three weeks, the puppies start going outside the den, first just for brief looks around. They wean at eight or nine weeks, and at 14 weeks leave the den permanently and start accompanying their parents on hunts. From now on, they take shelter in bushes rather than burrows. Also at this point the dispersal tactic starts; the different members of the family will go out individually in different directions during the day's foraging, but will then return when it's dark, giving their calls to identify themselves to each other.

Jackals of Africa

The dog family in sub-Saharan Africa is not very large, consisting of three species of jackal, one wolf, one wild dog, one true fox and the aberrant Bat-eared Fox. The black-backed jackal occurs in two widely separated groups, one in southern Africa and the other in eastern Africa. It prefers open, dry country. In the intervening moister savannah and woodland country it is replaced by the more fox-like side-striped jackal. In eastern Africa it co-occurs with the common or golden jackal, which is even more arid-adapted, even living in the middle of the Sahara, and outside Africa also occurs in Arabia and Asia. The Ethiopian wolf, Africa's rarest canid, lives in high mountains, not overlapping with other canids, except for domestic dogs. Black-backed jackals have been present in southern and eastern Africa for several millions of year. They are indeed the oldest species of the genus Canis, which includes wolves, jackals and dogs. They probably diverged from other canids around 2.3 to 4.5 million years ago, and certainly at a time must have had a continuous range, but moister climate in central Africa then separated them. If the climate becomes drier, the two groups might again meet up. Or, if they remain separated for long enough, they might evolve into two different species.

Although humans persecute these jackals in many places, they are still widespread, abundant, clever and adaptable enough to be considered in no danger of extinction.

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