JWM: Jackals only attack livestock when wild prey is scarce

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Black-backed jackal pups sometimes stay with their family group rather than dispersing in Benfontein Nature Reserve. ©Alex Sliwa

Jackal attacks on domestic sheep in South Africa are most common when the predators lack wild prey resources, according to new research.

These findings on the feeding habits of black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) could lead to better livestock management practices that may lower their attacks on livestock in farms surrounding a nature reserve.

“Black-backed jackals are considered a very controversial species,” said TWS member Jan Kamler, a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Unit of Oxford University and the lead author of the study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. “There’s heavy persecution of them on private lands.”

This collared black-backed jackal was one of the 15 individuals researchers tracked in South Africa for a study. ©Jan Kamler

The canines, named from the streak of black hair that covers their backs, live in two widely separated areas in southern and East Africa. Black-backed jackals are about the size of coyotes (Canis latrans) and quite similar in terms of their ecological niche and semi-solitary hunting habits. Also like coyotes, they have survived despite persecution that has wiped out all the larger predators in the area. Kamler’s study site was around Benfontein Nature Reserve, roughly in the middle of South Africa.

“They are the top remaining carnivore because humans have never managed to completely extirpate jackals,” Kamler said.

While the canines usually hunt alone, they aren’t completely solitary, spending their downtime with other family group members. Kamler and his co-authors put radio-tracking collars on 15 black-backed jackals, including at least one animal from all eight family groups living in the Benfontein Nature Reserve, to track their hunting habits from 2005 to 2008.

This recently published study was actually part of a larger study Kamler was involved with looking at the ways that the territories of jackals overlaps with that of Cape foxes (Vulpes chama) and bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis), two other mid-sized predators that share the same distribution. Kamler had done his PhD research on the interactions between coyotes and swift foxes (Vulpes velox) in the U.S., and had gained experience trapping coyotes using soft catch foot traps, which proved valuable with similar-sized jackals — in South Africa, he even used coyote urine as a lure to bring the jackals to the traps.

“They were either curious about it or thought it was from their own kind,” Kamler said.

The larger study found that with the absence of any larger predators to control the jackals, the latter increased in numbers and were aggressive toward smaller carnivores.

Bat-eared foxes are often killed by black-backed jackals, which likely see them as competition. ©Mark Anderson

“Jackals would kill foxes but not eat them,” he said. “They would kind of clean out the foxes’ core ranges.”

In analyzing the data for the recent study, Kamler and his colleagues found that black-backed jackals overwhelmingly prefer to hunt springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) fawns and stick within the reserve when these ungulates are plentiful. But during the summer when springbok fawns aren’t as plentiful, the jackals make some extraterritorial forays into private ranchland.

“It wasn’t just random, and it wasn’t year-round,” Kamler said about farm raids on sheep. During the summer, fawns are usually pretty large, he said, and adult springbok are usually too big for a jackal to take down.

This information could help mitigate human-wildlife conflicts in the area, Kamler said, allowing farmers to increase vigilance and use guard dogs and other anti-predator activities during these periods. Also, many ranchers in the area employ rotational grazing for their sheep. Since data from radio-collars showed that jackals don’t venture too far into the farmland, Kamler believes farmers might avoid conflict by simply moving their sheep farther away from Benfontein during the summer.

Another potential reason for conflict with jackals is that some of the landowners in the area keep wild ungulates for private hunting. Jackals prefer springbok due to their smaller size and because fawns are often left hidden and unattended in small bushes while they forage for long periods of the day, Kamler said, so avoiding the use of springbok for the hunting operations could reduce jackal predation because the ranchlands would become less appealing to the jackals.

One final point of interest Kamler discovered concerns how jackals form new family groups. Previously, nobody knew how this occurred, though some researchers assumed the jackals would disperse far away from their home territory once they reached maturity.

But Kamler and his team found that many of the younger jackals would stick around their birth group, serving as helpers for the dominant pair. Others would disperse and carve out new territory between those of their parent groups.

This article features research that was published in a TWS peer-reviewed journal. Individual online access to all TWS journal articles is a benefit of membership. Join TWS now to read the latest in wildlife research.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at jlearn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article.

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