The Jackal Returns

Jackals roaming

I was in the Danube Delta again last week, talking to locals of Sfântu Gheorghe about the golden jackal and downloading what our camera traps recorded in the last couple of months. Fall had just started to roll in – the first smell of burnt wood, the first cold rain – and with it a certain laziness was hanging in the air. For the humans of Sfântu Gheorghe, the season of indoor living and short days was starting, while for the jackals it seems the opposite was true. If our camera traps are to be believed, as soon as the temperature dropped and the last migratory birds left, jackal activity intensified tremendously. From May (when we set up the cameras) until late August, we caught jackals here and there. Several cameras had never recorded one, while one camera in particular (dubbed camera 4) seems to have been placed in the town center of animal life in general: it recorded abundantly, and revealed that a small area was used by jackals, boar, wild cats, raccoon dogs, badgers, cows (which for some reason like licking the camera), and a variety of birds. Seeing the variety of species all visiting the same bush, I found it interesting that potential prey would live so close to the top predator.

Then September came, and camera 4 recorded nothing but jackals, in numbers and frequencies not seen before. The only other animal still visiting the area is the cow with a fondness for licking, but all the smaller ones are gone. The other cameras also recorded an uptick in jackal activity. One of the cameras that had never recorded one finally corrected its meager returns. I am curious to see what happens as fall progresses and winter comes. The locals of Sfântu Gheorghe don’t overall make a difference between how many jackals they see according to season, but it might just be that they are more likely to encounter and hear them in the winter months, when the human population is bored, cold, and eager for spring (and tourists with cash in their pockets) to return.

In conversations about the jackal, locals revisited the same themes as before: the jackal is seen overwhelmingly negatively, but not necessarily as an invader. Though people are conscious of it arriving from elsewhere (most put the date in the mid oughts), they don’t tend to dislike it based on being foreign. In fact, most people in the area are themselves arrivals, as attested by the local languages, which borrow heavily from the Ukrainian spoken over the border to the north. In a shifting landscape of dunes and canals, provenance itself doesn’t seem to be the stone around the neck that it is elsewhere. Instead, locals dislike the jackal based on it being a predator. This is where the conversation usually turns to the archetypal canine predator, the wolf. Everyone knows it used to exist, and that it was driven to extinction on purpose, through hunting. And most everyone would like the jackal to meet the same end, though people are skeptical that it is at all possible, seeing the smaller size of the jackal and hence its ability to hide in reed beds, where it cannot be pursued. But the fact that so many conversations spontaneously steer towards the wolf is telling. It might be that the predator archetype, as it were, is an enduring one despite the historic absence of a top predator (the wolf had been exterminated by the 60s). The jackal unknowingly unearthed a symbol long buried.

The perceived abilities of the jackal also carry some of the blame for its negative image. It is reputed to devour entire carcasses in one evening, an alleged habit which threatens the local custom of hiding game in the swamp. It is said to run much faster than a dog (hunters are frequently unable to catch it with dogs), and it is ascribed both extreme caution and daring; it is said to be vary of people and disappear before one can see it, while at the same time it is claimed it has grown used to people and will even come into the village. Few have expressed their worry for small children on the village streets, and most say calves are eaten in larger numbers every year. This last point is the only direct economic cost anybody has ever incurred in Sfântu Gheorghe from a jackal (and most locals do not have cows).

I will go back in the winter to see what our cameras have done, and to keep talking to locals about this larger-than-life creature in their back yard. There is a thread of admiration underlying the hatred locals feel: they admire it for having grown accustomed to the Delta and for its physical abilities. When asked whether the jackal makes any positive contribution to the local environment, the few positive answers tend to either veer towards the divine – everything has a God-given purpose, or else the ecological – it disposes of carcasses quickly. Some invoke the locals’ tolerance for wild animals in general. As one woman put it, “we will get used to them as well”.

Jackal greeting its two grown cubs (wait for it…)

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