November 19, 2015

The day of the jackal

We at EcoTraining spend countless hours pouring over books written by a variety of experts to try and explain animal behaviour to prospective field guides.  We have a huge wealth of knowledge at our finger tips with which to glean the plethora of information documented on some of the most iconic animals in the world.  However, despite Man’s propensity of recording field data from observations, animals do not always read the text books and often we are made to look foolish as they defy the preconceptions we have attributed to them!

The other day, a report about a male lion that had killed a bush pig, came through on the radio.  We rushed to the scene of the crime already deep in explanation as to the feeding habits of Africa’s apex terrestrial predator, looking forward to watching the ferocious feline demolishing his prey.  When we arrived at the location we found the bushpig completely intact, not even opened, and no lion to be seen.  Often predators will kill other predators as a means of eliminating competition and these victims are usually not consumed as they were removed rather than killed for food, but there was no viable reason that a cache of meat such as this would be left alone.  It was a gentle reminder from the bush that no matter how long you spend out here watching the daily lives of its inhabitants, nothing is ever set in stone!

I can offer no satisfactory explanation as to why the lion chose to leave his prize but nothing is left to waste in the bush for long.  Throughout the afternoon, the vultures arrived and began to consume the carcass, comically scrapping and flapping around as they argued over feeding rights.  We returned to the site at the end of our night drive hoping that the smell of decomposing flesh had wafted its way to the sensitive nostrils of the resident hyena clan.  It seemed however that the hyenas’ had also turned their nose up at the meal but not so a small group of side-striped jackals!

This diminutive predator is often overlooked in the food chain but plays a hugely important role in cleaning up the bush.  It is not as gregarious as the more common black backed jackal and thus their presence was a welcome sight to us all.  The temptation of a free meal overrode their normal normally nervous disposition and we were rewarded with a wonderful sighting as they wrestled with their porky prize! 

Side striped jackals are omnivores and can get their water requirements from eating fruits which enable them to be very successful in more harsh terrains.  They are also efficient hunters and regularly take small mammals, birds and even arthropods but an unattended carcass was a bonanza for them to enjoy.  We stayed in the sighting long after dark enjoying their antics as individuals argued over the choice cuts, prompting a long discussion over their feeding habits, role in the ecosystem and why the lion chose to leave its kill. 

For me, the true beauty of working in the bush is the fact that nothing is ever set in stone.  For a lion to pass up an opportunity to feed is unusual, but its decision benefited a whole host of less powerful members of the bushveld community.  Rules are made to be broken and trying to fathom the rationale behind these incidents is what makes this vocation so fascinating.  Variety is the spice of life, and we bush folk live our lives wondering what awaits us around the next corner and it is this excitement: the unknown commodity, that makes a life in the bush so rewarding!

Blog and photos by Ben Coley
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