The threatened Jackal

We were watching birds in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP when I saw a sleek shape lope past on a parallel path. Our driver-guide was quicker than me, and immediately backed our jeep at speed. “Don’t worry, you’ll get a good photo,” he told me as I tried to focus through the bumps. Golden jackals (Canis aureus) like to travel on human roads, their adaptability is part of their tragedy. They are still seen as not needing the helping hand that we hold out to tigers and leopards, although they are disappearing faster. Our guide was right. The jackal turned with the road it was on, and came to a halt at the junction with the road we’d taken, just perfectly positioned for a close shot. It decided that we were a threat, and abruptly changed direction to backtrack. But there was another jeep ahead of us, so it came back, crossed the road, and disappeared into the growth next to it. I got a few good shots. The afternoon light was terrific, and these were about the best shots of jackals that I’ve ever got. The best of the driver-guides whom I’ve met in national parks in India know animal behaviour inside out. It is a pleasure to be with them.

Don’t you find yourself with some sympathy for underdogs? The beautiful Golden jackals are the underdogs of Indian wildlife, and they need all of our sympathy. Not as charismatic as the tigers or even leopards, not as impressive as the elephants and rhinos, they are slipping through the safety net of public sympathy towards extinction. The invention of key conservation species like the giant panda and the tiger was supposed to buy forest workers some breathing space, as they regenerated the habitats around the advertised species and made it safe for other, less saleable, creatures. Unfortunately, stardom has skewed these projects, and they are now geared towards the big few rather than the whole biosphere. As a result, the jackals of this world continue to suffer threats.


Just as we were about to leave Bhandup pumping station, there was a ripple of excitement. A golden jackal (Canis aureus) had been spotted. It stood at the side of the road far from us and looked at us warily. I couldn’t believe that jackals still coexist with us in the middle of the city! These waste lands run all along the eastern coast of Mumbai, and connect to the wildlife refuges nearby, so I guess there is a constant flow of wildlife through this area.

Golden jackals are not usually considered to be threatened species. But a recent study of reports published in media revealed that there is a large cryptic trade in jackals. This is largely fueled by superstitious beliefs about jackal skulls. Most conservation efforts in India concentrate on tigers, rhinos, and elephants. The public is aware of the dangers these species face, and there is a strong opinion against trade in these animals. The authors of the study point out that the data on jackals indicates that similar threats to less charismatic species often escape public consciousness.

Jackals and wolves

The IUCN Red List tells us that the golden jackal (Canis aureus) “is fairly common throughout its range with high densities observed in areas with abundant food and cover. They are opportunistic and will venture into human habitation at night to feed on garbage.” It is true that in small towns and villages you can still hear the call of jackals, and travelling on a highway at night you can see one lope off into the darkness now and then. However, the few times I’ve had good sightings of these shy creatures have been inside protected forests like Pench National Park.

If you go by the call of the jackal, you may be fooled into thinking that they are nocturnal. However, both the jackal sightings I had in Pench were in the middle of the day. The first time was the fight between a jackal and a gray langur, and the second time I just saw one trotting away next to the track our jeep was following (featured photo). A study which tracked many jackals using radio collars explains how this can happen. A jackal is actually diurnal, but also active at dawn and just after dusk.

The Red List says that the jackal’s habitat includes Africa, the middle east (from where it has moved into Europe in modern times) and India. Usually it is fairly reliable and up-to-date on these questions. However, this seems to be an exception. Startling new DNA data published in 2015 showed that these two populations are different species which diverged about a million years ago. It was suggested that the African species, Canis anthus, be called the African golden wolf, whereas the Eurasian jackal continue to be named Canis aureus.

It was the jackal—Tabaqui, the Dish-licker—and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

An older paper gave me some background to understand this. It turns out that among dog-like animals, the jackal is the basic form, which has differentiated into wolves a few times in history. Dogs, of course, are very closely related to wolves. As a result, dogs easily hybridize with wolves, but crosses with jackals are unviable. The group of jackals, wolves and dogs is sometimes called a species complex, because of their close relationship. In any case, the new finding was so startling that National Geographic called it the first discovery of a new canid species in 150 years.

I enjoyed watching these graceful creatures. Although they may not be immediately threatened, their habitat is slowly disappearing. For some time they may adapt to human presence, but as forests are replaced by parking lots, they will inevitably go the way of the dodo,

The Tale of the Jackal and the Monkey

If you strain your eyes a bit, in the featured photo you can see a bloody cut on the muzzle of the jackal, just below the eye. The incident that ended with this photo is a wonderful story: every bit as interesting as the folk tales you get to if you Google monkey versus jackal.

Jackal in the distance in Pench National Park

Early in the afternoon we reached a part of Pench National Park which is at the edge of the reservoir formed by the Totladoh dam over the Pench river. It has been a long and hot spring. There was little water to be seen. We came to a stop at a high point which would be the edge of the water after the monsoon. Below us was a small shallow body of water. On the far side we spotted a jackal trotting along (photo above). As it approached the water, it came within extreme range of my camera. I thought I would get a better photo as it came to drink water.

Through the viewfinder, I saw it speed up. I heard our guide say, “It’s going after that monkey!” I looked up and saw the jackal racing after a young langur which had come to drink water. The nearest tree was quite a way off. When I spotted the langur, it was already in flight: away from the water through a patch of rocky grass towards the nearest trees. The jackal was sprinting fast.

Monkey versus jackal in Pench National Park

The langur hopped on to a rocky outcrop. But it was easy for the jackal to climb this. The Family, the guide, and the driver, all were following this unusual incident with their binoculars glued to their eyes. I had only my camera. I could hear their excited chatter as I looked through the viewfinder again.

The jackal was snapping at the monkey, as it hopped desperately from one rock to another. I completely forgot that I could set my camera to record video. This was happening at the extreme range of my zoom, equivalent to 1200 mm. I shot off a series of photos, trusting in my luck, as the chase became desperate. In my excitement, my hand was not at its steadiest. The best photo I have is the one above: where you can see the reddish blur of the jackal’s fur on the far side of the langur, as it tries to bite the monkey’s rear leg. This was just before the jackal caught the langur by its tail!

We thought this was the end of the story. I was waiting to see whether the jackal would drag its kill towards us or away. But the desperate langur smacked the jackal across the face. It let go of the tail and jumped back. The langur remained perched on the highest rock. The jackal walked away.

As it emerged from the tall grass into full view, we could see its bloodied muzzle. It stood there, far from the water, and in the open for a long time. Our guide said “It cannot face its brothers any more.” This time around the proverbial trickster did not win. The monkey is not as much of a simpleton as folk tales would have it.

This was such an unusual sighting that it overshadowed the tales of sightings of tigers and leopards which were being exchanged when we returned that evening to our hotel for tea.