Frederick Forsyth merely reinforced a stereotype when he called his very first thriller, The Day of the Jackal. The poor jackal has endured the notoriety of being called wily, conniving, cunning, (all, the same thing really) venal and worst of all, cowardly for aeons, whether it be in mythology or literature. Its Hindi name geedhar actually means coward. Rudyard Kipling bad-mouthed the species too, with poor Tabaqui in his Jungle Books and I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of the same crime with a jackal I called Naradmunni in one of my books (The Tigers of Taboo Valley.)
So does this rather handsome (gold, charcoal, white, buff and cream) dog-like animal, with its short bushy tail, pointed snout and intelligent ears deserve this reputation? Or, are we simply calling it names because it reminds us of ourselves and that makes us uncomfortable?
Like us, jackals are hugely adaptable and, therefore, live nearly everywhere in the country. Also, like us, they are omnivorous and will eat practically anything. As carnivores, they go for rodents, small mammals, birds, eggs, insects, amphibians, reptiles — and while hunting in packs, even for larger animals such as deer and antelopes. Males usually weigh in at around 14 kg maximum, and are as large as (but much slimmer than), say, a Labrador retriever, so they’re not exactly heavyweights and bringing down a chital or sambar is quite a feat.
As herbivores, they’ll happily tuck into ripening muskmelon, grapes, watermelon, apricots, tomatoes and mulberries and are not popular with farmers growing these. They’re huge opportunists and will readily scavenge (so do we) on kills already made, thus economising on the energy expended on needless — and often risky — hunting. They know we make a lot of garbage and will happily clean up our messes and garbage dumps. In fact, they have been reported from the Delhi Golf Club and apparently go shopping and dining in Khan Market (after closing hours), which is the most expensive commercial real-estate in the country. These guys have arrived in life!
Another possible reason that they’re not exactly the top of the pops with us is that they give us the willies. Hah! you might snort derisively, “Scared of geedhars? Are you nuts?” Well, when they assemble outside your forest resthouse or hill-station resort on a full moon night and the alpha male raises his muzzle to the sky and opens up, followed by his pack members, you feel a prickle at the back of your neck and the hairs on your arms stands up and suddenly you need to go to the bathroom very quickly indeed. Whose infernal spirits are these ghouls outside summoning? Actually, they’re bonding as a family. You could try this with your own.
Often they sound like playback singers who make a lot of money singing in this manner, so you might think of giving this a try too, and joining them (karaoke with jackals) and see where it gets you! At any rate, it may be a viable option to chanting.
Jackals, again, like most of us, are monogamous and pair for life. Sure, there must be infidelities, though I haven’t as yet come across any reported scandals. The pups are born blind in underground dens at the end of tunnels a meter or so deep. Both parents look after the litter that has three to six pups, which stay with the family for around two years. A young male thrown out of the family (happens frequently, because of misbehaviour or rebelliousness or indiscipline), often ingratiates itself with the resident tiger and follows it around, subsisting on leftovers of the great beast’s kills. (Hence, characters like Tabaqui) He’s called a “koi-bahi” in Hindi. If he is the first to come across a carcass, he will summon his lord and master to the table and so is tolerated by the big cat. Look around and you’ll find so many of us doing much worse: prostrating ourselves before those far, far more ignoble….
While jackals appear to be doing all right in protected areas (estimated population around 80,000), their numbers are reportedly reducing elsewhere in the country, primarily because of habitat destruction. They are accorded minimum protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, and are not allowed to be hunted. In the past, the British homesick for fox-hunting, used them as substitutes and went after them with horses and hounds and “tally-ho-s!”.
When caught (alive), a jackal may play dead, so that the hunter might lose interest, giving it the chance to flee. In the wild, their predators are eagles, wolves and leopards. Many years ago, in Corbett, a jackal followed our Gypsy, obviously in the hope of a tidbit (strictly not allowed). It was November, and the moment the sun went down, it became quite chilly. They had been burning the grass in that section of the park at the time, and our companion decided to settle down for the night. It curled up on the warm ash of the burnt stubble, so comfortingly cosy and had the added bonus of a crispy insect or two jumping about, which made for a toasty snack before bedtime. We would need electric blankets, and well, eating crisps in bed — not a particularly good idea.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher