The Black-Backed Jackal

The black-backed jackal has always interested me, from the time I first saw one as a child on holiday in the Kruger National Park.  There was one particular jackal that used to always be seen just outside Skukuza camp, and what appealed to me as a child was how lonely he always looked.  They always seem to have a haunted look about them.  Over the last few weeks we have seen quite a number of them in the surrounding area.  It also seems that we now have more on the property and from the sounds of it – some cubs too.  The sound of the jackal at night while you sit around the fire is an awesome bushveld sound.

The black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), also known as the silver-backed jackal, inhabits two areas of the African continent separated by roughly 900 kilometers. One region includes the southern-most tip of the continent including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The other area is along the eastern coastline, including Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

As its name suggests, the species’ most distinguishing feature is the silver-black fur running from the back of the neck to the base of the tail. The chest and under parts are white to rusty-white, whereas the rest of the body ranges from reddish-brown to ginger. Females tend not to be as richly colored as males. The winter coat of adult males develops a reddish to an almost deep russet red color.

The black-backed jackal is typically 32 to 42 centimeters  high at the shoulder, 45-90 centimeters  long, and 7–13.5 kilograms in weight . Specimens in the southern part of the continent tend to be larger than their more northern cousins.

The black-backed jackal is noticeably more slender than other species of jackals, with large, erect, pointed ears. The muzzle is long and pointed.  Scent glands are present on the face and the anus and genital regions.

They usually lives together in pairs that last for life, but often hunts in packs to catch larger prey such as  impala. They are  very territorial; each pair dominates a permanent territory and are mainly nocturnal, but sometimes come out during the day.

These jackals adapt their diets to the available food sources in their habitat. It often scavenges, but it is also a successful hunter. Its omnivorous diet includes, among other things, impala, fur seal cubs, gazelles, guineafowl, insects, rodents, hares, lizards, snakes, fruits and berries, domestic animals such as sheep and goats, and carrion. As with most other species of small canids, jackals typically forage alone or in pairs. When foraging, the black-backed jackal moves with a distinctive trotting gait.

Its predators include the leopard and humans. Jackals are sometimes killed for their fur, or because they are considered predators of livestock.

The Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, was portrayed as a jackal-headed man, or as a jackal wearing ribbons and holding a flagellum, a symbol of protection, in the crook of its arm. Anubis was always shown as a black jackal or dog, even though real jackals are typically tan or a light brown. To the Egyptians, black was the color of regeneration, death, and the night. It was also the color that the body turned during mummification. The reason for Anubis’ animal model being canine is based on what the ancient Egyptians themselves observed of the creature—dogs and jackals often haunted the edges of the desert, especially near the cemeteries where the dead were buried. In fact, it is thought that the Egyptians began the practice of making elaborate graves and tombs to protect the dead from desecration by jackals.

The jackal is mentioned frequently in the Bible, where it is portrayed as a sinister creature, most notably in Psalm 63:9-11, where it is stated that non-believers would become food for the jackals.

The expression “jackalling” is sometimes used to describe the work done by a subordinate in order to save the time of a superior. (For example, a junior lawyer may peruse large quantities of material on behalf of a barrister.) This came from the tradition that the jackal will sometimes lead a lion to its prey. In other languages, the same word is sometimes used to describe the behavior of persons who try to scavenge scraps from the misfortunes of others; for example, by looting a village from which its inhabitants have fled because of a disaster.

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