Jackals have never really made the safari A list. Derided in Kipling’s Jungle Book as ‘dish-lickers’, they seldom get the attention they deserve on a Big Five safari. Yet in many areas, these are the most abundant of the mammalian carnivores and the closer you look, the more compelling they become. The black-backed jackal (Canis Mesomelas) species – named for the dark, white-flecked ‘saddle’ on its back – is one of three species in Africa. It 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. Versatile and resourceful, it is equally at home in the Drakensberg Mountains and the Namib Desert.
5 Fascinating facts:
- Black-backed jackals are highly vocal. Best known for their high wailing calls – often given in the early evening, when one individual answers another until an unearthly chorus builds up – they also utter a repeated yapping when tailing a predator; a call that sometimes betrays an irritated lion or leopard.
- Fossil deposits have revealed that the black-backed jackal is one of the oldest known dog species. It has remained pretty much unchanged since the Pleistocene epoch, up to 2.5 million years ago.
- Like all jackals, this species forms monogamous, life-long pair bonds. What’s more, youngsters from one year’s litter often act 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.
- 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.
- In the folklore of the indigenous Khoikhoi people of south-western Africa, the black-backed jackal often travels in tandem with the lion, which it frequently outsmarts or betrays using its superior intelligence.