The rosy dawn had barely touched the hilltops when first we heard the unmistakable call of a black backed jackal, Eeeyaaa ya ya ya, surely one of the most evocative sounds of the African veld. That night, sitting around the camp-fire, we heard it again. Throughout South African country areas (except in forests and swamps) one is likely to hear their weird, wild cry.
In the wild jackals are opportunists. They follow lions and finish up the scraps, but also hunt small mammals and birds, and eat insects and fruits. We once witnessed a jackal nibbling the ticks from a buffalo’s legs, the great bovid waiting patiently until the grooming was complete.
It was the explosion of small-stock farming in the Karoo that really started the war between herders and jackals. No doubt the first Khoekhoen* to bring fat-tailed sheep to the Cape more than 1000 years ago were plagued by jackals, but they lacked the means modern farmers have to wage war on these small, dog-like animals. Yet notwithstanding guns, hunt-clubs, dogs, traps, dynamite and poison the jackal is still with us. At one time it was believed that jackal-proof fencing together with hunting would finally control their movements, but jackals soon proved this to be a false assumption. In the 1950s at the height of the wool boom it was estimated that every year jackals were killing more than 200 000 sheep worth at least £500 000.
Probably South Africa’s most infamous jackal, so far as farmers were concerned, was ‘Broken Toe’ who made headlines nation-wide for 11 years starting in 1924*. Broken Toe, so named because of his characteristic spoor, made his appearance on the farm Kragga in the Riversdale district, but was very much associated with Mr JS Human’s farm, Honingfontein. Human calculated that during Broken Toe’s lifetime he was responsible for the death of more than 4 000 sheep, not all of which he ate. Over the years Mr Human tried everything he could think of to dispatch Broken Toe. When all else failed he posted a reward of £30, which he later doubled, for the death of his old enemy. Finally, in July 1935, a famous jackal hunter, Fick of Darling, on his own and without dogs, while tracking the jackal came across Broken Toe and shot him. Human paid up willingly, but there were those, although not stock-farmers, who mourned the passing of his wily adversary.
Practically everyone has a snake story, but thereafter jackals come a close second. Sitting around the fire after hearing the jackal’s call, we heard several tales. Perhaps the most unusual was told by Philip. It seems that whenever he has a problem with jackals on his farm he calls in a man named Alan.
“You won’t believe this,” he informed us, “but Alan talks to the jackals. He can speak their language.”
“Like Dr Dolittle?” someone asked.
“I knew you’d laugh at me,” retorted Philip in an aggrieved fashion, “but I’m only telling you what I saw with my own eyes.”
It seems that Alan, after a successful day hunting jackals, was relaxing with a beer when Philip asked if the farm was now jackal free.
“No,” replied Alan, “when I spoke to one of the jackals she replied that she couldn’t get away to meet me at the time as her mate was out hunting and she was looking after the cubs. Then there’s another just across the fence on Vogelfontein and he comes across here every now and then. I suggested we meet, but he said he couldn’t get through the fence.”
“And you know what,” said Philip, “the following week my neighbour was here with a helicopter, and when we flew over the farm we saw a jackal over on Vogelfontein and coming home we saw another one with cubs, right here on this farm.” He looked us in the eye from across the embers as if challenging us to express disbelieve.
Whatever your feelings may be about jackals there is no gainsaying their remarkable ability to survive. I have no doubt that if ever there comes a time when to see elephants, lions of rhinos one has to visit a zoo, there will still be jackals roaming the veld.
One is most likely to see jackals in the early mornings or evenings. Look out for them when next you visit Kariega Game Reserve, then around the campfire you will have your own tales to tell - even if you haven’t the talents of Dr Dolittle.
*Khoekhoen – formerly known as Hottentots.
*The full story of Broken Toe is told by Lawrence Green in his 1955 book “Karoo”.