Knowing the Jackal


The year of following the activity of Golden Jackals in the Danube Delta has sadly come to an end. I say sadly because it was great fun getting fresh batches of videos and seeing how the animals behaved. It was equally nice to be asked by people in the community of Sfântu Gheorghe (in the Romanian Danube Delta) about how the animals are doing, on each of my many visits. This always led to interesting discussions. There are, however, benefits to having all the material together. Now I can zoom out and see what the collected data suggests.

The thing that interests me most is how two species (humans and jackals) manage to live together in a territory, and how they get to know each other through cohabitation. To live together doesn’t necessarily imply living in any kind of harmony, and surely the relationship in this case is tense. That aside, I wanted to better understand how the species get to know each other. Being a human myself, it is the way humans build knowledge of the jackal that I can more readily theorize.

To do this, I used three different kinds of information. I spoke with many locals of Sfântu Gheorghe about the jackal, and what they told me forms one very important kind of data. Second, the camera traps (filming day and night) helped me understand where the jackals are, and how frequently they use the territory. And lastly, with the generous and expert help of Ștefan, a geographer at the University of Bucharest, we managed to visualize the territory in which jackals and humans interact. Literally mapping the jackal’s movements brings together the information from the cameras with that from people.

With cartographical help and good knowledge of the study area, we analytically divided the territory where people and jackals overlap into different home-ranges for the two species, and neighborhood ranges where they overlap and compete. The above map clearly shows a human home range (the village proper) that is strictly delineated from the neighborhood by water and dikes (the lines you see surrounding the village). Just outside these barriers lies the neighborhood, that is to say an area of activity (but not dwelling) that both jackals and humans consider rightfully theirs, but that neither fully controls. This is the space of competition.

The first thing that we see by plotting jackal activity on this map is that the intensity of jackal movement (measured by the frequency of filming events) varies according to the distance from the human home range, and the use that humans make of that particular neighbourhood. The dots on the map are the cameras and the numbers are the filming events that each camera recorded during the year (play with the zoom function to make sure you are seeing all camera points). So the greatest activity was recorded in areas where jackal territory is strictly delimited from the human home (by, in the West, a broad and deep channel, and in the East a dike), but where nonetheless animal husbandry exists, thus providing opportunities for the jackals (dead animals, newborn calves). This kind of area naturally gives rise to competition, as both jackals and humans struggle to use it to their benefit.

Just north of the village (the dots in the middle of the map) we recorded the least activity. This can be interpreted as a feature of the landscape: there, the area is wide open, with no clear route along landmarks (like dikes and channels). It was therefore much more difficult to place the cameras in a way that would capture most jackal movement, as the animals had many transit options. We do see, however, movement towards and away from the village garbage dump. It stands to reason that the jackal, a brilliant forager, is interested in picking up whatever scraps it can.

The ways in which the jackals respect territorial zoning suggests deep learning on their part. This is not surprising, as many animals are known to learn about the habits of other animals in the territories that they use. On the cameras we see many different species that share space with jackals: boar, hare, deer, many different kinds of birds, otters, and so on. However, they all use the territory such that they avoid confrontation. This is no less true of the jackal-human relation.

The animated map above shows all of the filming events throughout the year in the sequence in which they occurred. It visually represents a phenomenon that many spoke of in the interviews: the feeling of being surrounded by jackals. Far from this being a confirmation of the jackal’s scheming, evil nature, it simply reflects the facts of geography and the mutual species learning occurring around the village. By respecting the boundary of the human home-range, the jackal naturally moves around this delimited perimeter, following the channels and dikes that surround the village proper. Because it knows when humans are most active (during the day), it prefers to come out at night, precisely so as to avoid confrontation. For humans the visual sense is the dominant one, and seeing how it is pretty useless at night, we feel insecure and afraid in the dark. The jackal, on the other hand, has no such problems (relying much more on smell). So the evening presence of the jackal is known by humans through sound: people hear the howls and barks of their neighbors, just outside the village boundary.

This intrusion through sound is very important for how people get to know the jackal. Part of the idea that the jackal is somehow evil comes directly from the encounter of its voice. Sound itself is a peculiar phenomenon, because it has no respect for personal boundaries. It goes through walls and bodies without asking for permission, and is therefore easily experienced as an assault. The jackals, for their part, are communicating between themselves, and we can imagine the human voice carrying a similarly eerie feeling for them. Due to geography and the different dominant senses of the two species, humans and jackals, it is easy to understand how sound becomes such an important mode of knowing.

It is also misleading. Most people I spoke with tended to think that jackals live in big groups. The cameras contradict this perception, though occasionally up to five animals were filmed at once. We know from studies of jackals elsewhere that they live in pairs, so groups are simply family units with immature individuals. However, it is easy to see how hearing the nightly chorus would suggest greater numbers.

Overall, local people’s ecological knowledge of the jackal is quite extensive. Being used to interacting with wild and domestic animals on a regular basis, people have a deep curiosity towards jackals. Animosity does not seem to dampen the will to know more, quite the contrary. Being considered intelligent and resourceful, the jackal is often seen as a worthy adversary, someone that, precisely because of its intelligence, is an equal of sorts. People feel like they have to be their best (in terms of skill, speed, attention, and so on) in order to compete with the jackal. This can also be turned on its head: people can exploit the jackal’s learning ability by communicating new boundaries more consistently and insistently. For instance, if calving events were to happen closer to the village, where people can supervise the cattle, conflict with jackals would decrease dramatically. Similarly, if garbage were better secured, this would certainly diminish jackal activity in the area.

I have written elsewhere (and here and here) about other important aspects of knowing jackals: the relationship with the wolf and hence their mythological quality; the fact that the jackal being in some sense invasive, in a multi-ethnic milieu, doesn’t seem to be held against it; and the difference in knowledge between men and women, explained by their different use of the territory. Putting all of these things together gives us a nice picture of how jackals are constructed in the local imagination. But what is extremely interesting is to start to think about the study territory – about space itself – as inherently multi-species and multi-sensory. Put simply, what this study ultimately shows is how the space of the village is created through interaction with other animals (the jackal being but an example) and is known through the use of many senses (it is not just a visual grid). I will discuss these ideas, and the different results of the jackal study, with interested members of the Sfântu Gheorghe community, in February 2018. I look forward to hearing what they have to say and to their proposals for building better ways of living together. I will update you then on the discussion.

This study would have been impossible without the help and passion of many people. I want to thank Alexandra for her invaluable help in formulating the initial ideas, getting the right research permits, and forging a constructive relationship with Rewilding Europe. Without Razvan’s help, this project would have fallen on its face. No matter the weather, he collected those SD cards and sorted through thousands of videos! Ștefan did a wonderful job plotting the data and sorting through many hours of video. Discussing the ideas with him has fundamentally shaped them. And without the people of Sfântu Gheorghe, nothing would have happened. All were happy to talk and were unwaveringly hospitable. My gratitude goes out to them. To all of these people, and to you who have read my thoughts over the last year, here’s to a happy new one!

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