Who’s afraid of the big bad jackal?

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The St. George branch of the Danube, Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve

For the past year, I have been doing field-work in the Romanian Danube Delta. Everybody in Europe knows of the Danube river, but very few (outside Romania and the Ukraine) know that it forms a sprawling delta before reaching the Black Sea. This area, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Biosphere Reserve, is one of the best preserved deltas in the world, despite the significant influence people have had on its development. The communist regime in Romania had the characteristically monstrous ambition of transforming the wetland into agricultural land. Fortunately, they failed, but their legacy is visible in both natural and mental landscapes.

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Abandoned fish canning factory, Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve

Stranded in a corner of Europe, the delta has had its cultural heyday already, and is now mostly known for the varieties of wildlife on offer. However, it is far from abandoned: around 15.000 people live there, scattered in small villages (28 of them) and one town (Sulina). The culture of the Delta inhabitants is at least as interesting as the wildlife. In fact, much of what passes as cultural practice has been co-evolved with other species, particularly with fish. The Delta abounds in fish recipes, and many locals tend to be experts in fish ecology and behavior. Birds are less known, though they are abundant. Socio-economically, the Delta is a deprived place, despite its incredible natural wealth. Indeed, one of the keys to its future is finding ways to increase human well being through nature conservation. To this end, the birds might just be the fish of tomorrow, providing locals with a good living as live resources for bird-watchers.

Within this context, I have been following the work of Rewilding Europe, an organization that aims to set up rewilding pilot projects throughout Europe. One such project is in the Delta, more specifically in the village of Sfântu Gheorghe. There, rewilders are trying to do several things: restore a part of the wetland that has been seriously degraded; introduce proto-aurochs; build a wildlife-based economy. In following their work, I had the good fortune of meeting many people and talking to a good number of them about life in the Delta. One figure that kept coming up in conversation, always negatively, was that of the golden jackal (Canis aureus). When I first visited the Delta, I knew of the variety of fish and birds. Jackals? What were they doing there, and why was everyone talking about them?

Out of curiosity, I started looking into the history of the jackal in the Delta. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to look at. There is no agreement on whether it has always been there or whether it is an ‘invasive’. There is no detailed knowledge of its feeding habits in the Delta or its impact on ground-nesting birds. And there is no questioning the anecdotal evidence as to its evil, deviant, nature. So I saw an opportunity, and decided to run a year-long study mapping the locals’ perceptions of the jackal (who knows, there might be people that like it!) and comparing those with footage from camera-traps set at key locations around the village. With the significant help of two wonderful people, Alexandra and Răzvan, I started collecting interviews with locals about the jackal. Armed with a map of the area, made by geographer Ștefan Constantinescu of the University of Bucharest, I visited local inhabitants and asked them to put a little mark where they have personally seen jackals. I took the resultant maps and overlaid them to reveal a first mental map, as it were, of the jackal distribution around the village. I did this in February this year, and plan to repeat it in the summer and the fall, to see if there is any seasonal variation in the answers. At the same time, Razvan is setting up five camera traps, with a possibility to increase them to nine, to cover the areas most reported by people as well as ones where we saw a lot of paw-prints during our walks. This monitoring will go on for a full year as well. At the end, I am curious to juxtapose the two and see what we get.

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Stefan’s map of the area surrounding the village
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Same map as above, but with all the reported sightings in red

Obviously, there is still a long way to go to understand both how the jackal features in the imagination, and where it actually operates (not to mention what it actually does). To me, it is crucial to understand how people think about it, and why. Without this kind of knowledge, conservation policy is based on guesswork. After all, people are the most important component of any conservation plan. So here I wanted to both share the work-in-progress in general, and to give a taste of the kinds of things that can cautiously be said about imagining the jackal, after the first round of interviews. As you can see from the map above, people report it around the village a lot. It stands to reason that people would report seeing the animal in places that they themselves use, so in and around the village (though notably nobody has so far reported a jackal inside the village) and throughout the communal lands. It remains to be seen whether the ‘village surrounded by jackals’ image given by the map has serious empirical backing. However that may be, it is significant nonetheless.

There were several other things that surprised me in thinking back on the interviews. The jackal is fairly hated, no surprise there. The word itself, in Romanian as much as in English, is used as a pejorative. However, it is also admired. Some participants expressed awe at the jackal’s speed, strength, cunning and tenacity. Many told me that their dogs are no match for it, and that it can devour a carcass in one night. These stories were almost envious – damn jackal, look what it can do! To me, there is an interesting possibility there of boosting this admiration. Connected to this point, I also asked people what they thought the role of the jackal is. Pretty much everyone said that it must have a role, since there is nothing useless, strictly speaking, in nature. And this brings me to another point that I didn’t expect to hear.

Some of the participants, after answering the question as to the role of the jackal, were resigned to having to live with it, though they didn’t quite like the idea. Both the idea of cohabitation and the dislike I found interesting. The idea of living together with things we don’t like is increasingly foreign to urban dwellers. Sure, there are rats in New York, and everyone more or less accepts that, but that is because they cannot be eradicated. In environments like the Delta, people are used to living with a wide variety of animals, many of which they don’t like. Does this mean that they actively persecute them? Sometimes, though very rarely do they set out to exterminate them, even though it would be far more possible than exterminating rats in New York. In other words, there is more tolerance to wildlife in the Delta than in environments where people are simply not used to sharing space with other creatures. Witness in this connection the media frenzy surrounding a wolf’s forays into the Netherlands, a country so packed with people that few animals still have space for themselves.

A very prevalent reason for being disliked is the jackal’s voice. To its disfavour, it sounds like a child screaming. Women in particular found this disturbing, I wager because women in the village work by and large around the house, and hence never actually see a jackal; their only contact with the animal is auditory. I can understand why, if your only connection with something is its voice, which reminds you of children screaming, you might dislike it. This auditory aspect of the jackal was mentioned by almost everyone. Something else which was mentioned by everyone, and which I did not expect, was that there had been wolves in the Delta, and that perhaps the jackal is simply filling the space left open. The wolves were purposefully exterminated (indeed, people did not want, in the past, to share space with them), and many recalled having heard from elders of the last hunting expeditions. I found it fascinating that there was already a mental space for the jackal to occupy. It is as if an archetypal predator, no longer haunting locals, had returned to scream through the night.

Of course, jackals are not wolves, and wolves themselves persecute jackals if their territories overlap. However, it is true that jackals are more likely to thrive where there are no wolves, and in this respect the locals are right to connect the extermination of one with the success of the other. Wolves are deeply rooted in our imagination as top predators, and in this respect the jackal is getting a bad reputation for no real fault of its own. In studies elsewhere, it has been shown that jackals mostly prey on small rodents and eat a surprising amount of vegetarian fare. They are highly opportunistic feeders, but they come nowhere near the wolf’s ability to hunt. In several studies of agricultural areas with jackal populations, no domestic animal remains were found in jackal scat analysis. In this respect, the appropriate comparison would be with the fox, not the wolf. It would of course be very interesting and important to know precisely what jackals in the Delta eat, but so far the authorities are more concerned with ill-conceived ‘control measures’ than with actual data. If studies elsewhere are any guide, then I wouldn’t be surprised to find a significant amount of the jackal’s diet is not of animal origin, and that the vast majority of the animals that it does eat are not domestic. Bearing in mind the similarity with the fox’s diet, and the mental space that the fox occupies (much more positive than the wolf – it is a cunning animal, but it isn’t evil), an interesting avenue for shifting perceptions might be to bring the fox and the jackal closer together in people’s minds.

This brings me to the last point. Some people complained of the jackals eating calves, boar, and birds, both domestic and wild. On aggregate, the damages that the jackal actually does to immediate human interests are small. So they will sometimes take a calf, but they take very few indeed compared to the number born each year (this information comes from my interviews, and not from actual observation of jackal predation or scat analysis). Other people complained that they eat the eggs of wild birds (I did see several remains of wild birds eaten by jackals). I found it odd, because very few locals currently care about birds. I took that complaint to be connected to the one about the (very rare) eating of domestic animals: basically the jackal is a potential competitor, something else to worry about. And whereas in the Netherlands people talk about the wolf because they have none, in the Delta people dislike the jackal because it is something else to worry about. It doesn’t really matter whether the actual damages from jackals are small; what matters is that in a situation of precarious, subsistence, living, anything that might compete with your limited resources is a rightful target of concern. So the best way to allow space for the jackals would be, I think, to make subsistence living a thing of the past.

These are some of the initial thoughts occasioned by this ongoing research. I’ll post some footage of jackals, if we ever catch them on our camera traps, and keep you updated on how the animal continues to evolve in people’s lives. I tried, really hard, to see some myself last time I was in the Delta. Having tried so hard, of course I saw none. Hopefully next time I’ll have more luck – perhaps i’ll try less – and will get to experience for myself what it is like to see a myth embodied.

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