Cohabitation and Mutual Adaptation

At the beginning of March I visited the Sfântu Gheorghe community of the Danube Delta in order to gather the latest material on the jackal study I’ve presented here in the past. To recall, I have set up seven different camera traps to record jackal activity in key areas identified by locals. I have also conducted several rounds of interviews in order to understand the predominant image of the jackal in the community. The interviews have now concluded, and the cameras will be recording until May 2017 (we started in May 2016). Though still not properly analyzed (it is ongoing), this study has already given me pause for thought on several occasions. Here I want to share with you a couple of points that I find particularly interesting and that I had the opportunity to reflect on during this last trip.

When I first started going to the Delta, I didn’t know it was populated by jackals. Hearing locals talk about these animals I got the impression that there are a lot of them, and of a particularly evil character. It seemed to me that locals only ever spoke of the jackals negatively, and I was curious to find out why. I thought then that I had stumbled upon a conflict – I called the study proposal “attitudes to conflictual species” – and wanted to see what it was based on and what could be done about it. During the year that I have studied the abrasive relationship between people and jackals, I came to see that the anecdotal evidence of an overwhelmingly negative perception was misleading. This is not to say that I have found secret jackal lovers. But I have found plenty of people whose view of the animal is nuanced. More importantly, I have found that it is socially safe to talk about the jackal negatively, whereas it might be more socially problematic to express a hidden tolerance. Whereas in the interviews a majority of people could find positive characteristics of the jackal, in public nobody wanted to be seen as pro-jackal.

This finding led me to reevaluate my assumption of a conflict between jackals and people. It now seems more accurate to say that talking dirt about the jackal is part of a strategy of cohabitation. After all, people in the village do not tend to actively persecute the animal; there are no culling campaigns, poisonings, and so on. Instead, the jackal presents an easy valve for blowing off some steam. The community of Sfântu Gheorghe, like any rural community that struggles with economic insecurity, has a long list of complaints, chief among which is the fishing legislation. This makes sense, because fish is the most important resource of the village and fishing goes back many generations, being a social glue as much as an economic activity. As a result, the majority of the jackal interviews ended up talking about fish. This showed me both the importance of fishing for the community, and the logical inclusion of the jackal in the pot of complaints. People seem so far content to verbally assault the jackal while fundamentally accepting cohabitation.

The other major economic activity of the village (excluding summer tourism) is the rearing of cattle. The husbandry of the Delta is quite particular in that cattle roam free – there are very few stalls relative to the number of cows. When needed, animals are tracked down and retrieved, but they spend the majority of their lives feral. This also means that traditionally cows gave birth on dunes and meadows far from the village. Since the jackal arrived this has become less tenable, because the opportunistic canid is quick to grab newborn calves. It is impossible to give an exact estimate of the numbers involved, but people tend to mention the eating of calves a lot when discussing the jackal (regardless of whether they themselves have cows). However, I’ve noticed that people are taking steps to remedy this problem by gathering the pregnant cows to give birth closer to home, where they can be watched over. This means more effort is expanded in having cows, because the owners have to track their animals and feed them during the birthing period. But seeing this spontaneous adaptation to a Delta with jackals gives hope for strengthening future cohabitation (by, for example, helping with the extra costs involved in gathering the pregnant cows).

The jackal is not an active hunter of big game. It is an opportunistic and adaptable feeder, enjoying in particular the discarded remains of animals (as in the video above), which of course are provided by people. This paper shows that jackals in Serbia perform an important carrion removal role, though in the case of the Delta there are many other animals that can do the same. Though recognised by some locals for its cleaning services, the jackal’s image suffers not so much because of what it does, but because of what it means.

The jackal turns out to inhabit a perfect symbolic storm. It is easily recognised as a relative of the wolf, and therefore integrated in a long line of fear. Calling someone a jackal was already an insult before anyone in Sfântu Gheorghe laid eyes on one. And most importantly, the jackal substantially modifies the soundscape of the village, and this more than anything seems to bother people. The jackal is often heard at dusk, and the long screeches that it emits don’t carry the voluptuousness of the wolf howl, nor the reassuring familiarity of a dog’s bark. Many describe the jackal’s calls as reminiscent of human screams. And the timing of this sonorous spectacle – the evening – is itself symbolically charged, as the period when the safety of light is overcome by the danger of the dark. Therefore the jackal is assimilated to the cast of nightly creatures that humans fear or despise, and it does itself no favors by reminding everyone, every evening, of its presence. Lastly, the structure of the jackal call makes it so it seems as if there are more than a couple individuals performing: it truly sounds as if tens of jackals have surrounded the village, ready to start a nightly raid.

Knowing the jackal through sound is rightly powerful. The camera traps that I have set up are a completely different way of knowing the animal, one which is seldom experienced without technological help. People in the Delta have so far been very curious about this technological way of knowing, asking repeatedly about the footage. This shows that people are generally curious towards the jackal, in itself a positive trait that can also become future ground for peaceful cohabitation. The question is how these various ways of knowing can be put together while minimizing their inherent contradictions. Can the jackal become just another member of the biotic Delta community, despite its symbolic weight? It remains to be seen, but so far there is room for hope.

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