As much as I admire the big cats of Africa, I have a soft spot for all members of the canine family. As slightly built as domestic dogs, super smart and wonderfully loyal to their packs, jackals are one of my favourite creatures.
I grew up in Africa where the stories of my childhood were a magical blend of Disney and indigenous folklore. Similar to north European fairy tales of the prankster Loki, Jackal is the trickster of African fables. He uses cunning to catch out the big, brawny creatures, especially the king, Lion.
I always loved stories featuring this little con artist and can’t help but snap away when I see him in the wild. On a recent safari in the Masai Mara, during the tranquil lull before the Great Migration, I came across this youngster out enjoying the sunshine and a playful bit of insect hunting. He’s a black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), also known as the silver-backed or red jackal.
During the Great Migration, jackals can’t shake their bushy tails at all the carcasses abandoned to scavengers by the big predators. There are feasts for smaller predators going begging around just about every corner as lions, leopards and cheetahs enjoy the easy pickings from the young and weak animals among the vast passing herds.
Now, black-backed jackals are one of the most ancient canids of all –the ancestors of modern wolves and dogs. They have not survived the past two million years by only getting in the ring at their own bantam-fighting weight. In fact, these little fellows – literally the smallest of all jackals - are considered the most aggressive. I’ve seen an individual jackal hunt and kill a young impala – an antelope larger than itself - with clinical efficiency.
Jackals are monogamous and older siblings help raise younger pups, so the bonds between family members are super strong and they are very territorial. Jackals are also smart enough to eat anything nutritious when larger meals are in short supply. And by ‘anything’ I mean everything from berries to beetles, scorpions to spiders, and rats to rabbits. This little fellow was hopping through the grasses catching and munching grasshoppers with great gusto.
Despite being persecuted by humans and having to share the wilderness with much larger predators, jackals are one of the most successful species in Africa. In fact, they are so far into the green zone on the endangered list that they deserve steak medals for the sheer tenacity that keeps them thriving against all odds.