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05 Oct 2020
Jackal 1434867 1920

Jackals are super smart and, inadvertently, we’re making them smarter by fast-forwarding natural selection.

They learn from their surroundings. A researcher in the Serengeti was studying cheetah-gazelle interaction and found that when the gazelle spotted a cat they’d stott – a sort of ‘we see you’ dare dance – and the cheetah would call off the hunt.

A jackal, which was partial to the remains of the kill, soon worked out that if it skirted the herd and put on a ‘fascination display’, rolling and squirming on the ground, all eyes would be on it and the cheetah would pounce unseen. It might have been pure chance, except the jackal did it every time the cheetah hunted – and scarfed the leftovers.

Jackals are also omnivorous. When European colonists arrived in southern Africa they cleared forests, filled the veld with tasty and bone-stupid sheep and exterminated the jackal’s chief competitors, lion, hyena and leopard. The canny dogs soon expanded their range dramatically and were quick to sample forbidden fruit.

Sheep, goats and calves were perfectly acceptable additions to their diet, as were poodles, peaches, avocados, parakeets grapes, harness straps, saddles, oranges and the occasional Persian cat.
Some time back I had a conversation about jackals with a problem animal specialist, Thys de Wet, who at the time was working at Venetia Reserve near Alldays .

‘You may start off hating them,’ he told me, ‘but the more you work with jackals the more you respect them. They’re so smart.’

‘Farmers don’t understand them. Most don’t kill sheep. But if a sheep is killed farmers go crazy and throw everything at the problem. So maybe they kill the alpha male or female. Bad move – thats when the real trouble starts.’

Without the male, the territory is fair game and there are plenty of sub-males around – roaming Samurai warriors ready to exploit the gap.

Being less established, they may have had to become inventive in their hunting. Maybe they’d learned to kill sheep. They’ll take over the range, teach other youngsters their skills.

By dominating breeding cycles, alpha females can keep whole territories unproductive. But the interlopers will generally chase her away once her mate is killed. Without her, younger females will begin to breed. There’ll soon be more pups around. Which means a higher survival rate, which means more jackals.

Pretty soon the farmer’s losing sizeable chunks of his flock. From where he sits it looks like a vendetta. Each generation is harder to trap, harder to poison, harder to fence out, harder to fool and harder to kill. And every one is genetically hard wired to learn from the top predator – the farmer himself – in order to outwit him.

For hundreds of years humans have been gin snaring, shooting, cage trapping and poisoning jackals, killing off the weakest and breeding up the cleverest in a campaign of attrition which has simply smartened up the species. Jackals keep springing back with the robust impertinence of weeds.

The net result of this slaughter has been precisely the opposite of what was intended. We now have a sheep farmer’s worst nightmare – a predator which thrives on persecution. By fast-tracking natural selection, we’ve produced a superdog.

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,

He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.