Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW 

Dispelling the multiple myths about jackals and their predator peers

Dispelling the multiple myths about jackals and their predator peers
'Jackals, Golden Wolves and Honey Badgers: Cunning, Courage and Conflict with Humans' by Keith Somerville book cover. Image: Supplied / Routledge

Keith Somerville, who has established himself as the ‘biographer’ of much of Africa’s wildlife, seeks to dispel some of the myths about jackals, honey badgers and golden wolves in his latest critter book.

While on a trout-fishing trip to KZN’s Lotheni Nature Reserve in May last year, myself and my companions witnessed a black-backed jackal pursue a mountain reedbuck doe, in broad daylight, for miles along a trail.

Our vantage point from our basic park chalets was a panoramic one that swept below through jagged brush into the valley and river below. This was cross-cut by trails, including a looping one that stretched from our chalets toward the base of the mountains before circling back.

It was on this trail that the pursuit took place, at one point passing within metres of our chalet.

A while later, we caught sight of the jackal uphill from our chalets by the park offices, and then saw the reedbuck creeping around our braai area. Bambi, it seemed, had won the day.

A Black-backed Jackal in front of its den in the Kwedi concession of the Okavango Delta, around 30km north of Mombo, Botswana, 04 October 2007. EPA/GERNOT HENSEL

But what struck me was a jarring jackal juxtaposition.

Around our chalets we also became acquainted with a resident jackal — the staff said his name was “China”. Basically, this “China” my Chinas hung around our braai area — loitering with intent, as they say. China was not going to bust his or her butt chasing a buck for miles on a frigid autumn day.

No, “China” was a scavenger, and was on “the hunt” for our scraps, having succumbed to the lurid temptation of “anthropogenic food waste,” to use the term of art.

Indeed, “China’s” utter disinterest in actually killing his/her own food was thrown into sharp relief by the resident guinea fowl flock. I have seen chickens that were more skittish. But China was hardly going to bother with even the minimal effort represented by this drive-through KFC option.

So that got me thinking.

Why would one jackal expend a lot of energy (fruitlessly) chasing a wild buck on a brisk day when there were such easy pickings at hand, and close by, that another opted for?

The explanation for this and other candid contrasts can be found in Keith Somerville’s new book, Jackals, Golden Wolves and Honey Badgers: Cunning, Courage and Conflict with Humans. Somerville, who has established himself as the “biographer” of much of Africa’s wildlife, seeks to dispel some of the myths about these critters in his latest work.

“China’s” behaviour it seems has long been the image of the jackal in the human mind, a stark contrast with that of honey badgers, whose fearsome reputation as warriors of the wild mirrors that of their evolutionary relatives, the wolverines of the Northern Hemisphere forests.

“One of the leading researchers of jackals and their behaviour noted that, unlike the almost superhero representation of honey badgers, jackals of all species (and here I include golden wolves) were long seen as ‘as skulking scavengers with base and reprehensible behaviour.’ This low-life image as an eater of carrion, a thief who steals brazenly from lion or cheetah kills, and a sneaky killer of lambs and goats, is belied by scientists’ accounts, based on long observation, of clever, courageous and family-oriented mammals,” Somerville writes.


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Indeed, jackals are highly adaptable carnivores that share many of the traits associated with the coyotes of North America, able to establish themselves as “alpha predators” when larger and less versatile meat-eaters have been removed. They can easily move between both hunting and scavenging and have adapted to living in proximity to humans and all of the rich pickings we have to offer.  

And like coyotes, efforts by livestock farmers — whose aversion to predators requires no explanation —  to exterminate jackals are often fruitless and perhaps counter-productive. Trapping, snaring, poisoning and shooting have been among the many methods employed.

“From the early 19th century through to the independence era, in South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Namibia, there was constant war against jackals, primarily the black-backed jackals of the arid and semi-arid savanna and semi-desert regions, which were home to large flocks of sheep and goats,” Somerville says, “… the various extermination campaigns not only failed to get rid of the threat farmers believed that jackals posed, but the range of jackals also appeared to be spreading.”

That has still not ended and the growing scientific consensus is that it is simply not working. Somerville cites one study that found the culling of jackals “… may well be counter-productive in the longer term as culling is associated with higher livestock losses in the following year. Farmers report that most of the lethal and non-lethal managerial options to protect their livestock from predation are becoming less effective over time.”

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kalahari, Southern Africa. A black-backed jackal drinking from a watering hole. MEDIA 24 PTY LTD (NEWSPAPERS)

This reviewer was also not surprised to learn that George Adamson of “Born Free” fame was a predator poisoner of note, with dead jackals among the collateral damage of his campaigns against hyenas. According to Somerville this was a source of regret for Adamson as jackals killed the sheep and goats kept by the Samurai pastoralists which he saw as damaging to wild habitat. Still revered as an icon (or even a martyr as he was murdered in the end) among some animal welfare activists, his conservation credentials and that of his late wife Joy are in many ways dubious, to say the least.

This reviewer was surprised to learn about the return or expansion into the Baltic states of European golden jackals — the book and the species it covers are not restricted to Africa. I lived in the Baltic states for several years in the 1990s and occasionally wrote about rebounding wolf populations there, but had no idea that jackals would also rewild the landscape.

Somerville also delves into the jackal’s image in ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan African cultures. The jackal has often been depicted as a “trickster” in Africa. While Somerville does not elaborate on this point, this reviewer presumes these are some of the roots of the “trickster” tales that figured prominently in the oral traditions of African American slaves.    

The book provides overviews of the natural history of honey badgers and golden wolves — recently reclassified as wolves — and this reviewer certainly learned a lot. The popular depictions of honey badgers — ‘pound for pound, the most powerful creature in Africa,’ and the ‘bravest animal on earth’ —  recall for this reviewer the portrayal of wolverines in works I read as an adolescent by the Canadian natural history writer Farley Mowat and others. Both animals are of course more complex and reports of honey badgers attacking humans seem to be exaggerated. But I still wouldn’t want to be locked in a cage with either species.

If this reviewer has a quibble, it is that the relentless presentation of facts about the species covered can sometimes detract from the narrative and make it read in places more life a reference work. A suggestion would be to include some of that stuff in the footnotes or an appendix. I have made similar comments about Somerville’s book on hyenas, which was also a rewarding read.  

This book has benefited from more colour from Somerville’s extensive on-the-ground reporting, including his first-hand observations of the interactions of jackals and honey badgers in Botswana — observations that lead to this work, which stands as a definitive account of these often misunderstood and persecuted creatures. ML/OBP/DM

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Absa OBP

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