The day of the Jackal……Photographer : Haresh de Soysa, Indika Nettigama (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails), Arran Sivarajah (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
All visitors to Yala National Park instantly get a bout of ‘Leopard Fever’. You can’t blame them; Sri Lanka is quite simply one of the best locations in the world to observe leopard in the wild. It is easy to get caught up in the hype; yet when you take a step back to enjoy your surroundings; it is difficult not to appreciate the other magnificent wildlife that inhibits our jungles. They form an integral part of the ecosystem and among this category is the only wild member of the dog family (canidae) found in Sri Lanka, the Golden Jackal (Canis aureus naria).
I can vaguely trace my fascination of Jackals to a trip to the jungles with my parents as a 7 year old. In failing light on the Uraniya plains, a drama was being staged in front of us; the performers were a pair of Jackals and a stubborn leopard. The prize on offer looked liked the bare remains of a recent kill. While the leopard occupied prime position, the feisty jackals moved in with a sense of bravery that is hard to understand for such a small creature. A strange tryst followed where the Jackals irritated the leopard from different angles in an almost playful manner with an eye on the prize; it was a fascinating sight that I won’t forget. I didn’t realize it then, but these were a part of the sequence of events that would ultimately make me return to the wilds again and again as a teenager and then as a young adult; I was hooked!
The average overall length of an adult male Jackal, which is larger than a female, is about 100cm. Males can weight 9kg while females are approx. 7kg. This tough and adaptive mammalian carnivore, whose intelligence, resourcefulness and cunning has been a part of indigenous folklore, has a wide distribution across the island. It is very dog-like in appearance with a bushy tail and its yelping howl can often be heard at night while camping with Leopard Trails in Yala and Wilpattu. Their social structures are broadly based on a pair bond, which persists throughout life. Jackals are active during the day and at night, and it is not unusual to see them in the open at the hottest hours of the day.
Jackals are capable predators, bringing down prey as large as spotted deer when they hunt in groups. However they are highly opportunistic feeders: small to medium-sized vertebrates are commonly taken and their prey base consists of a wide variety ranging from small mammals such as mouse deer, ground nesting birds such as jungle fowl, eggs, insects, lizards, snakes to hares and rodents. They are often on the move constantly on the look-out for opportunities, preferring to scavenge rather than hunt like most predators. Hunting is both energetically expensive and at times even dangerous.
The Jackal plays a vital role within eco-systems as an important member of the ‘clean-up crew” at any carcass, whatever the animal or cause of death. Therefore they perform an important function; preventing the spread of disease from large rotting carcasses. Their role also extends to pruning herbivore populations as destroyers of injured, weak and sick animals.
Conflict with Man
Largely nocturnal in areas close to human habitation the jackal comes in to direct conflict with man when it attacks and kills livestock. Young goats and poultry have been known to fall victim. They are thus the target of snares and also become fatality injured in snares intended for other wild animals, placed by farmers defending livestock. In addition, they also become the victim of poisoned cattle carcasses meant for leopards.
Observing Jackals in the wild
Jackals can be observed through out the day in National Parks across Sri Lanka, although they are relatively shy and sightings are never guaranteed. They are found in the wilder areas over most of the island, but are known to prefer the lowlands of the dry zone.
Jackals can be observed during a Leopard Trails safari, albeit, with an element of luck involved as it is difficult to monitor and predict their movements. They are known to move across vast distances.
Reputed wildlife photographer and conservation advocate Lal Anthonis recalls an interesting tale about jackals in the book Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka: Experiences and Encounters (Editor – C.G. URAGODA):
“I have heard it said that the Jackal (Canis aureus) has a unique way of getting rid of the ticks and fleas that get onto its skin and hide in its thick hair. It gets a piece of coconut husk in its mouth and wades into a stream with the husk held high. It goes deeper and deeper into the water till the drowning fleas all move up and get onto the husk, which is still above the water. Then the jackal releases the coconut husk into the water, thus drowning the fleas and then comes back to shore. I have not seen a jackal with a coconut husk or anything else in its mouth though I have seen many of them in the water.”
Observing and experiencing Sri Lanka’s wildlife is fast becoming a popular pastime. The consistent rise in tourist arrivals has meant a steady flow of visitors to popular destinations such as Yala National Park. The fastest growing segment is the local wildlife enthusiast (amateur photographer). Armed with the latest digital SLR cameras, lenses, tripods and other paraphernalia, Sri Lankan wildlife aficionados are flocking to our National Parks like never before. During the civil conflict, locals largely shied away due to widely published terrorist activities within the park, leaving a small group of hardcore enthusiasts willing to take the risk to make the trip. The Wilpattu National Park for example, where Leopard Trails has recently opened its 2nd camp, was closed down for 15 years due to frequent unrest and proximity to the battlefront. Yet peace in our country has meant local nature enthusiasts have a great opportunity to observe and photograph a diverse fauna and flora within a few hours drive from Colombo. I am of the opinion that here lies a great opportunity to promote the long-term conservation of our jungles. It is these, our local tourists, that hold the key to the future protection of our bio-diversity; their potential to lobby for better management, necessary regulations and the protection of Sri Lanka’s wildlife as a whole, needs to be harnessed.
It is vital that while Sri Lankan’s enjoy a special time to be a nature enthusiast and photographer in post-conflict Sri Lanka, they make a net positive contribution to the continuing survival of threatened plant or animal species on the island.