While driving slowly back to Satara Rest Camp along the S100 one evening, we came across a mixed group of Impalas and Baboons peacefully whiling away the final minutes of sunlight at Shibotwana waterhole. It is then that we noticed a Black-backed Jackal moving through the group, obviously looking for an easy meal. The Jackal spied a young Baboon and gave it a little more attention than the Baboon wanted; it shrieked and set off running towards its mother and then things took a very quick turn for the worse for the Jackal, who managed to escape a serious hiding by the skin of his teeth!
Considered a cunning creature of tricks and magic in local folklore and reviled by small stock farmers, Black-backed Jackals are the most common canid occurring in South Africa. Easily recognisable by their black-and-silver “saddles”, these jackals stand between 30 and 48cm high at the shoulder and weigh between 5 and 13kg.
Black-backed Jackals have a very wide habitat tolerance, and can be found from desert coasts to high mountain ranges, though they prefer drier, more open country and avoid forested areas. They are even known to live in the suburbs of many towns and cities. They are equally catholic in their diet and there’s very little that a Black-backed Jackal will not eat. Where they share their range with large predators, like lions, leopards and cheetahs, carrion makes up a large proportion of their intake, though they are quite capable hunters and will prey on anything from invertebrates to fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals up to medium-sized antelope like the springbok and seal pups. They will also eat berries, fruit and rizomes. Black-backed Jackals are independent of drinking water, but will drink when it is available.
Black-backed Jackals are nocturnal animals, usually emerging at dusk and returning to their dens at dawn, though they may at times be active throughout the day, and especially so in overcast weather. By day they sleep in thickets, caves or holes dug in the ground by other animals, The normal social grouping consists of a mated pair with their offspring, often of consecutive litters, defending fairly large territories. Apart from being very clever animals, Black-backed Jackals are quite brave and tenacious, and will even mob lions and hyenas on a carcass.
Black-backed Jackals pairs usually have litters of 3-4 pups born on late winter or spring after a short 2 month gestation. Previous litters help the dominant pair to raise the youngest offspring by bringing food to the den (usually a cave or hole in the ground). Black-backed Jackals often fall prey to larger carnivores (leopards are especially fond of jackal meat), are also very susceptible to mange, distemper and rabies, and have a life expectancy of only 6 to 14 years in the wild.
The IUCN considers the Black-backed Jackal as being of least concern, being common with a stable population over most of its distribution in East and Southern Africa, despite being persecuted as vermin by farmers. They occur all over South Africa, though they are understandably much easier to see in conservation areas than in farming communities. In our experience good places to go looking for Black-backed Jackals are the Kruger National Park (especially around Satara), Addo Elephant, Golden Gate, Marakele and Pilanesberg National Parks, Giant’s Castle in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, and Rietvlei Nature Reserve.