Notes and slides from talk by Richard Maasdorp, part of Z.P.G.A. Talks, 25th March, 2022, at…
Tourists on the lookout for The Big Five might not be impressed by the sight of a jackal but in many places where larger predators have been eliminated, the jackals have become dominant predators of the area, eliminating sick or weak antelopes and maintaining the health of the ecosystem.
Like foxes and coyotes, jackals are known for their cunning and daring and are often depicted as tricksters in the myths and legends of their regions. For example, in the folklore of the indigenous Khoi-San people of south-western Africa, the black-backed jackal accompanies the lion, which it frequently tricks out of food. In reality jackals are often seen nipping in to steal a morsel from lions on a kill.
Jackal Species and Sub-species
There are four jackal species:
- Asiatic or Golden jackal – Canis aureus – from eastern Europe to Southeast Asia,
- Black-backed jackal – Canis (Lupulella) mesomelas – of southern and eastern Africa
- Side-striped jackal – Canis (Lupulella) adustus of southern and eastern Africa.
The black-backed jackal is named for the dark, white-flecked ‘saddle’ on its back (from the ancient Greek “meso” = middle and “melas” = black). The black-backed jackal occurs in two separate populations, one in East Africa, from Ethiopia south to Central Tanzania, and another in Southern Africa, from the Cape north to Zimbabwe. (This latter population is often referred to as the Cape black-backed jackal.) The two populations are separated by a band of about 900 kilometres which contains the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, an area with harsh terrain that is difficult to cross.
As you can see from the distribution map above the side-stripped jackal and the black-backed jacal both occur in Zimbabwe. Most of this article, however, will be about the black-backed jackal with only occasional references to their side-striped cousin because the black-backed is by far the most commonly seen.
It is interesting to note, however, that in areas where the two species occur together (for example in Hwange National Park), the black-backed jackals aggressively drive out the side-striped from grassland habitats into woodlands. This is unique among carnivores, as larger species usually displace smaller ones
Jackals belong to the dog genus canid and are therefore related to wolves, coyotes and foxes. They can breed with domestic dogs. They have an odour that humans find offensive, caused by the secretion of a gland at the base of the tail.
Vital Statistics of the Black-backed Jackal
The side-striped jackal is somewhat larger (tending to be a little bit longer and heavier) than the black-backed. It has a coat is sandy-grey in colour rather than the reddish colour of the black-backed jackal pictured above. The back is darker grey than the underside, and the tail is black with a white tip. On its sides are indistinct white stripes, running from elbow to hip. The boldness of the markings varies between individuals, with those of adults being better defined than those of juveniles.
The jackal’s teeth are dog-like though slightly more adapted to an omnivorous diet. Their sharp curved dog-like canines are adapted for hunting small mammals, birds and reptiles, and (together with their sharp claws) to drive any intruders away and defend their territory.
Fossil deposits have revealed that the black-backed jackal is one of the oldest known dog species. It has remained largely unchanged since the Pleistocene epoch, up to 2.5 million years ago, which is an indication of the efficiency of its physical characteristics. Jackals are adapted for long-distance running while hunting. They have relatively long legs, fused leg bones and their large tough paws can withstand the heat as well as the rough dry ground.
They are capable of speeds of 16 km/h for extended periods of time and have been known to reach a speed of over 30 km/h in a short burst.
They use their sense of hearing and smell more than their vision to find prey. They trot quickly through their territories, frequently stopping to sniff the air and test for the scent of prey. A jackal’s bite is very strong for its size which helps to increase its success as a hunter.
Jackal spoor is a neat, small, dog-like track, about 5 cm long.
Black-backed jackals are extremely resourceful animals and can adapt to a wide range of habitats, including coastal areas, deserts and mountains. They prefer the dry areas of open plains and avoid wetlands and swamps. (Side-striped jackals tend to be found more in woodlands and favour somewhat more damp environments.)
The black-backed jackals are opportunistic omnivores, eating insects, reptiles, birds and birds’ eggs and plant materials such as fruit and berries. They scavenge when carcasses are available and pick over kills made by large carnivores and even frequent rubbish dumps in pursuit of food but they are also hunters in their own right. They hunt smaller mammals such as rodents and hares with a bite to the back of the neck and maybe a neck-breaking shake. A single jackal is capable of killing a healthy adult impala but they tend to co-operate in larger groups to subdue prey such as impala and wildebeest calves. They typically kill tall prey by biting at the legs and loins and frequently go for the throat.
Like most canids, the black-backed jackal hoards small chunks of meat when it is in abundance and it has a habit of burying food if an intruder enters the area where it is feeding.
Side-striped jackals reflect in their diet the wetter areas where they are found. During the rainy season they feed largely on invertebrates but fruit can make up 30% of their diet and during the dry months they feed on small mammals, such as the springhare. They frequently scavenge from campsites and on the kills of larger predators.
Habits & Social Behaviour
Jackals live in vacated burrows of other animals and in crevices between rocks. They like having several exits in their dens for easy escape from predators. They are normally shy and try to stay out of sight either in their dens or taking cover in tall grass.
Jackals are crepuscular, most active at dawn and dusk but can sometimes be seen in full daylight or at night. (Side-striped jackals tend to be more exclusively nocturnal.)
Black-backed jackals are social animals, living in pairs within family groups or packs of typically six to ten members. The pairs are monogamous, in other words a pair of jackals bond for life. Jackal pairs do everything together, including eating and sleeping. They also hunt together. Jackal pairs who hunt together are three times more likely to get a successful kill than a single jackal.
Jackals are not particularly aggressive. A jackal that is walking alone is likely to run away from a threat though a large group of jackals may stand their ground against a predator and may even be able to overwhelm a leopard or a hyena. At the very least, a large pack may be able to chase the predator away. The only time they show aggression is when their territory is threatened by a jackal intruder at which point jackal pairs are fiercely and aggressively territorial, defending their home range and chasing off intruding rivals. Encounters with intruders are normally avoided as the pair vocalises to advertise its claim over a given area. Furthermore, both males and females scent mark their boundaries vigorously and mark features with their urine and faeces, usually in tandem. They defend their territory as a team.
Young jackals initially use their parents territory to gain survival experience and also often acting as ‘helpers’, suppressing their own breeding ambitions and remaining with their parents for a year or more in order to help them raise the next litter. This habit is known to have a greater bearing on pup survival rates in black-backed jackals, than in any other jackal species. Later in life the youngsters undertake wide ranging excursions until they find their own mates and territories. Usually, unpaired adults, who are looking for mates, have larger home ranges than paired adults.
Jackals are extremely vocal. They communicate with each other by means of growling, woofing, yapping and yelping sounds. Each jackal family has their own yipping sound that only members of their own family respond to and they will ignore all other calls. One howling sound may mean that a jackal has killed prey and wants everyone in the family to eat. One of the best-known sounds of the African bush is their high-pitched wailing calls, often given in the early evening, when one individual answers another until a chorus builds up.
(The side-striped jackal uses a ‘hoot’ sound like an owl rather than a howl. This unique sound has earned it the nickname ‘o loo’ in Uganda.) Jackals expresses alarm through an explosive cry followed by shorter, high-pitched yelps. This sound is particularly frantic when mobbing a leopard or other predator. A trapped jackal cackles like a fox.
Mating occurs between May and August. After a two months gestation period, between one and seven pups are born in an underground den, usually in an abandoned burrow of aardvark. They are altricial (i.e. tiny, blind and helpless). Over the following three weeks the female is constantly with the pups, suckling and protecting them, while the male provides them with food. The parents then start feeding the pups by regurgitating food, for up to three months, with both parents caring for the pups. During this time the mother moves her litter to different underground dens every couple of weeks to make it difficult for a predator to pick up their scent.
At the age of three months the pups are weaned and are able to forage with the adults. As they develop more coordination, they learn to ambush and pounce and will begin to chase and wrestle among themselves.
The parents start teaching them how to hunt when they are about six months old. A pup may leave its parents at 11 months of age to strike out on its own. Or it may stay with its parents to help care for pups in next litter.
Life span, Threats & Diseases
The average lifespan of a jackal in the wild is seven years, though captive specimens can live twice as long. Jackal pups are vulnerable to the speed and strength of martial eagles, honey badgers and hyenas. Adults have few natural predators apart from lions, leopards and wild dogs.
The total number of black-backed and side-striped jackals is currently unknown but stable. They are widely distributed and found in large numbers all over the area of their habitat. In the IUCN Red List the species is classified as Least Concern (LC).
Human-wildlife conflict is a growing threat to jackals. As habitats are lost due to human population growth and the expansion of roads, settlements and agriculture, jackals are increasingly infringing on human settlements, where they can be a danger to livestock and poultry and killed as vermin. Rural populations tend to poison and snare them to protect their livestock. Night-time road accidents also claim the lives of many jackals.
Jackals are also often persecuted as rabies transmitters. Black-backed jackals are among the most significant vectors of rabies in southern Africa. They have been associated with epidemics, which appear in four- to eight-year cycles. Jackals in Zimbabwe are able to maintain rabies independently of other species. Although oral vaccinations are effective in jackals, the long-term control of rabies continues to be a problem in areas where stray dogs are not given the same immunisation. Black-backed jackals can also carry diseases such as canine parvovirus, canine distemper, canine adenovirus, Ehrlichia canis, African horse sickness and anthrax.
It seems important not to be blasé about the well-being of jackal populations just because at present they are classified as of Least Concern. These tough, resourceful little animals are adapted to perform a variety of important functions in their particular niche in the environment. If you would like to get to know jackals a bit better watch the attached simple YouTube video where for seven minutes you can watch jackals hunting and eating a bird, drinking, interacting quietly, looking round constantly for any possible threat or food.
“Black-backed Jackal” on The IUCN Red List site – http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/3755/0
“Black-backed jackal”, Animalia, https://animalia.bio/black-backed-jackal
“Black-backed Jackal”, Siyabona Africa, https://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_black-backed_jackal.html
“Black-backed jackal”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/black-backed_jackal
“Facts About Jackals”, LIVESCIENCE, https://www.livescience.com/57654-jackal-facts.html by Alina Bradford, published January 27, 2017
“Five Fascinating Facts About the Black-Backed Jackal”, https://www.safaribookings.com/blog/facts-about-the-black-backed-jackal
“Jackal” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/animal/jackal
“Jackal”, A-Z Animals, https://a-z-animals.com/animals/jackal/
“Jackal”, African Wildlife Foundation, https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/jackal
“Jackal”, Animal Corner, https://animalcorner.org/animals/jackal/
“Side-striped Jackal “- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/side-striped_jackal