We were hurrying back to the lodge for breakfast when Stephen pointed to the right and brought the Landrover to a halt. A black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) stood surveying its surroundings. This was the second time I’d seen this tiny predator. Before I could switch on my camera (it takes geological ages to boot) it had started down-slope. I was not unhappy with the photo I got. I followed it as it walked on, and then sat down in the grass to scratch itself, just like any dog that you might have seen. The bliss on its face as it scratched was amazing. I wondered how closely related are the African black-backed jackals and domestic dogs.
By now the answer is pretty clear. They are in the same family: one that includes old-world dogs, wolves, and jackals. But within this family they are as different as they could be. According to a genetic study, the black-backed jackal is the basal form of this group of animals, meaning that it lies genetically closest to the parent species. Usually this means that its hunting grounds are closest to those of the parent group. The genetically more distant descendants usually diverge from the parent stock as they range further into geographically new territory. If this is true of jackals, wolves, and dogs, then the original canids inhabited East Africa. Coincidentally, this area was also inhabited by the parent group from which we humans come.
Sure enough, fossils show that black-backed jackals have been essentially unchanged for about 2.7 million years. That means that the tool-using Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis, and their successors, Homo erectus, would have seen essentially the same animal that I saw. Could they have taken the first steps to domesticate them? Just as we inherited tool-use, and possibly language, from our progenitor species, could we also have inherited the earliest forms of dogs?
When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.
Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.
The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.
Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.
The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.