On the Jackal’s trail

Walking on a sand road leading away from the village, scouting for places to put our camera-traps, I saw my first jackal. No more than twenty meters away, it stopped to look at us before disappearing in the high grasses of the Delta. In the previous days, we had followed their tracks and knew more or less what paths they had cut through the vegetation, for easy movement. Usually they share these paths with boar, thought the exclusively jackal ones tend to be smaller and tidier. We repeatedly saw their marks in the landscape and recognized, through these traces, how much at home they had become. But this was the first time I had actually seen one, and the experience felt underwhelming, as if I had just discovered that santa was really my chubby neighbor in a suit. From a distance, the jackal looks like a lot of dogs in the Delta do. In fact, it is quite difficult to tell their tracks apart, and often we are not really sure of whether we are looking at jackal or dog prints. But my companion was happy; now, he said, I could finally believe the locals when they say they see the damn animal all the time!

I had believed the locals all along. But the point is not to believe people when they say they see and hear jackal all the time, but rather to understand how what they see, and what they think they see, affects what they believe and how they consequently act (see this for more background). The jackal that I saw seemed big to me. I had anticipated the encounter for a long time, and was primed for spotting an impressive, not just any, animal. In fact, I have no idea exactly how big the specimen was, and how it compares to other individuals of its species. In interviews and conversations, several people said that jackals in the Delta are bigger than average. And they, of course, reported seeing many big individuals. I recorded their opinions as such, but it would be foolish to believe them in the sense of taking them as veridical. Instead, I believe that people are being honest when reporting on their experience, though the possibility of being mistaken always looms over experience.

Through mixing interviews collected over a year with camera-traps placed strategically around the area of the village, I hope to be able to disentangle how what people see and hear makes its way into what they believe. In May, we placed the cameras and I continued the interviews and conversations. The location for the cameras was chosen based on where people reported high jackal activity, combined with our own tracking in the field. We placed one control camera in an area where nobody had reported activity but where we discovered paths that could be used by jackals. So far I have no usable footage; the test on the first day revealed the eating pattern of a cow that absolutely cleaned the vegetation in front of one of the cameras. Impressive, but not what I was looking for.

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Spot the camera

Besides the quick update on the continuation of the jackal project, I wanted to reflect on a couple of things I found myself thinking about this time around, namely surveillance and care. First, surveillance. In dotting the surroundings of the village with equipment designed to record, the issue of surveillance obviously came up. Together with my partners in this project, we asked the necessary authorities for the permits to carry out our study (specifically, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority). Strictly speaking, that is all that we needed to do. However, that didn’t seem enough, because it failed to take into account the fact that we are working in an area that experienced strict surveillance in the past, in the form of the all-mighty grip of the Ceausescu era secret service, the securitate. True, the securitate did not set cameras around the village, but they engaged in much more insidious and powerful surveillance that lives on in the collective memory of the place. We did not want to use the pretext of science to stir the memory of fear.

Besides the more distant memory of surveillance, another salient issue is the current fraught relationship between the Biosphere Reserve Authority and the local inhabitants. Many of the practices that locals engage in as a matter of subsistence and/or tradition (hunting, fishing, gathering reeds) are, from the Authority’s point of view, poaching. The subtleties involved in policing such practices are themselves a form of contemporary surveillance and a way of exercising power. We wanted to avoid at all cost the impression that our cameras are the Authority’s cameras, set for the purpose of monitoring hunting or gathering of wild plants and animals. Indeed, in order to escape the shadow of official legitimation given by our having to ask the Authority for a permit, we were also very transparent about our intentions and the location of the cameras. We went out of our way to place the equipment in areas that are unlikely to be visited by people and, where that wasn’t possible, we asked for permission from the most likely land-users (as in the case of a camera placed next to a cow shed). We also agreed on a strict use protocol that forbids us from using any human imagery that we might unwittingly gather, and informed the local authorities of the village itself of our practices and intentions.

The fact that surveillance is a sensitive issue that should be taken into account in conservation doesn’t seem to have sunk into the majority of conservation practice. People in the Delta were usually curious and cautious when hearing of our plans to deploy the cameras, a clear sign, to my mind, that the issue of surveillance is important to them. I suspect that, with the increased use of drones and other equipment, these issues will only become more salient, and researchers, conservationists, and practitioners shouldn’t just be content with getting an official permit, but should try to figure out how their work fits into wider cultural and political contexts. In the case of my own research this is still a work-in-progress, but one whose importance I don’t doubt.

This brings me to the issue of care. Without being able to be exhaustive or even precise, I want to reflect a little bit on the ways in which this notion is important for conservation work understood in a wider context. Conservationists are usually thought of as people that care deeply about the natural world. They are often obsessive types, caring about one thing above all others. In the economy of care, this passion for the natural world or some part of it often sparks the animosity of people that do not share the same concerns. For example, in the Delta it is commonplace to hear locals say that conservationists ‘care more about birds than about us’. I also noticed that locals often don’t care about many of the things around them. Again in the context of the Delta, local people tend to care about the things they eat (basically, fish), and some of the things that they come into conflict with (some birds that they perceive as fishing too much). Compared with fish and some birds, the jackal barely features on the care list of locals. Sure, most profess their hate, which can be seen as an interrupted, disjointed care, but in fact they do not feature the animal at all in their lives, until asked about it.

This misalignment of care between locals and people interested in the natural world for one reason or another is not just a shame philosophically speaking, but also hinders cooperation and understanding. The way I see it, nature lovers miss out on caring about a world that includes humans, and locals miss out on caring about a world that includes ‘useless’ animals and humans with different preferences. I wonder if a more sensitive conservation practice couldn’t be a way to educate all humans invested in a place in the infinite capaciousness of care. To this end, I plan on sharing the results of my research with the people of Sf. Gheorghe, in the hope that the jackal can become a bit more than a scarecrow. I don’t mean that the jackal should be loved – I cannot say I myself have those kinds of feelings towards it. Instead, I hope that more tolerance and curiosity can be brought to bear on how we understand its place, next to ours, in the natural world.

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