A Candid brush with a Canid

3 weeks, 4 days ago 3
Posted in: Blog

An unexpected brush with a bunch of jackals close to human habitation sets the author wondering on their fate.

Written by Nishanth Srinivas

It was the last leg of a wondrous journey; a journey which took us through the lush lowland Dipterocarp rainforests reverberating with calls of gibbons and cicadas, to the mystical green hills cloaked in vibrant shades of green. It led us through small homely towns with tasty brew and delectable chicken on the fare, and along torrential rivers of myriad hues of grey, green and sometimes white cutting through the mountains, all of which make up the resplendent eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. As we descended down from the misty hills, we decided to halt at Tezu, from where after a couple or more days of official work some of us would depart for Guwahati, homeward-bound from a pleasurable official visit.

Tezu, a town situated close to the Lohit River, is the headquarters of Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh and has a sizable population of over 20,000. Like most present-day towns, it is well connected by roadways, and also boasts of an airport! On account of official work with the local forest department, we were put up at a forest rest house situated inside the Tezu Botanical Garden, which is about a kilometer from the town centre.

The botanical garden spans approximately 23 hectares and hosts a collection of regional native flora, with long avenues of Polyalthia longifolia (Indian mast tree) and Mesua ferrea (Ironwood tree) crisscrossing the garden. Also present were native trees like Ficus elastica (Indian rubber fig), Ficus racemosa, Neolamarckia cadamba, Bombax ceiba, Dillenia indica and Elaeocarpus species. The trees were lofty, with large arching canopies, whose barks are covered with moss and epiphytic ferns. Large gnarly vines twisted around their trunks, entangling them. It was as though a chunk of rainforest was neatly cut and placed there. The grounds, however, were overrun by dense thickets of invasive Eupatorium, creepers and bracken.

Despite hosting a diverse collection of flora, the place had a general feel of decay and had fallen into disrepair. Garbage was strewn outside the garden, and although there is a big entrance gate, the boundary wall of the garden had a hole in it, a hole so large that even people could pass through and enter… and enter they did.

During the day the place was abuzz with activity. The sodden paths hosted everyone from morning joggers and cyclists to jilted lovers, and sometimes an odd stray dog. Everyone used the garden, even the native fauna. During early morning walks, one could not miss the raucous calls of the Hill Myna or the constant droning of the Blue-throated Barbet, accompanied by the chattering of Pied Starlings and Black Bulbuls among others. I was surprised to find Pallas’s squirrels dashing across the branches in the canopy.

The garden is also home to countless number of beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects as was evident from our findings of lifeless chitinous husks of odd looking, ill-fated insects in the rest house, which would have flown in through the door and got trapped indoors thanks to glass windows and mesh. The denizens of the night, however were completely different, and we were about to be surprised by the presence of one particular kind.

As was customary of our Bedouin-like existence, we usually dined out in restaurants or in the rest houses where we stayed. The latter was possible only when the rest house employed a caretaker adept at cooking and importantly, caring enough to cook. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the caretaker at the botanical garden rest house, although willing didn’t know how to cook, and so on our first day, we ended up staying out after work and decided to have an early supper before heading back. It was in the month of August and it had just stopped raining for the evening.

Hide and seek

It gets dark very early in this part of our country, and as our jeep drew near the entrance, I got down and pushed open the wrought iron gate and closed it behind the jeep after it entered. Rain lingered on the leaves, and they glistened in the vehicle headlights. We were about 150-metres away from our place of lodging. As we trundled closer to the rest house, behind the botanical garden, a small brownish dog-like creature with a narrow muzzle, short tail and closely set blinker-like eyes trotted across our path and disappeared into the undergrowth.

“Jackal! That was a jackal!” exclaimed one of my colleagues, who was driving. Wide-eyed and thrilled about this finding, we got all set to capture it on our camera. The spacious rest house we stayed at had a large balcony on the first level above the entrance, next to which was a large fluorescent lamp with a beam angle wide enough to light a short stretch of the driveway leading to the building. We had waited for about an hour or so, when finally, a pair of jackals emerged from the undergrowth and onto the path. We were ready with the camera in hand, waiting for them to come further towards the bright light, but they managed to thwart us from capturing a better picture. We had to squint to observe them in the dim light, as they rested on the path for a bit and skirted along the edge of the bright beam and disappeared again, refusing to make a reappearance, and forcing us to call it a day and retreat into our rooms.

The knowledge that there were jackals in the vicinity drew us back in the hopes of getting a good picture. The next day, we set up tripods – one on the balcony and the other near a window closer to the driveway – and hoped for that perfect shot. As twilight drew close, the jackals reappeared. This time, the pair was accompanied by a third smaller individual, probably a pup and they kept running about the grass, still away from the bright beam, resting in the duller spill light, play fighting and chasing each other in a botanical garden, next to a busy highway and barely a kilometre from the town centre, which, just a few hours ago, had walkers and cyclists treading on the very same path upon which the jackals were now sprawled.

But why were the jackals in this neglected botanical garden, this close to human habitation, I wondered.

Habitat and conservation challenges

Being a habitat generalist, the golden jackal (Canis aureus) has the ability to live in a range of habitats from semi-arid conditions to marshes and mangroves; from forested habitats to agricultural and semi-urban habitats. Due to this adaptability, it is probably one of the most widespread canids whose native range extends from Vietnam in South-east Asia to the Czech Republic in Central Europe (1) .

Though categorized as carnivores, they are in fact omnivores taking in plant and animal matter but, more importantly, they are opportunists, which means though they are capable of hunting everything from blackbuck to rodents to grasshoppers, they take advantage of resources readily available in the environment. Jackals are known to utilize such resources that present themselves in the form of carrion, garbage piles and abattoir waste. Hence they effectively function as facultative scavengers and are known to visit the outskirts of villages and towns to scavenge on these human-generated resources (2). Due to these traits, traditional folklore paints them as intelligent and wily creatures. A shout out to Tabaqui from Kipling’s Jungle Book for the literature lovers!

Despite this nature of resourcefulness and secrecy, living in close proximity to humans poses some risks to jackals. Interactions with feral dogs, whom they are bound to encounter while utilizing the same resources at dump yards and carcass dumps in the outskirts of urban centres can have negative impacts on golden jackals due to transmission of diseases like canine distemper and rabies(4) . Though the global population of golden jackals is increasing, disease can pose threat at the regional level.

Additionally, there is the possibility of hybridization between jackals and dogs, which could dilute the jackal gene pool at a regional scale (5). Jackals also run the risk of being termed as pest species, as is the case in rural Bangladesh, where they are perceived as pests of agricultural crops and livestock (3).

On the contrary, the habits of the jackal may, in fact, be providing important ecosystem services which are largely undervalued.  As a mesocarnivore they keep a check on populations of rodents and large insect pests, providing a much needed service to farmers in crop pest management, thereby increasing agricultural output. Jackals also serve as cleaners, by feeding at waste dumps, by clearing organic wastes like cattle carcasses and food waste, which would otherwise cause groundwater contamination and pose serious health risks.  A study in Europe indicates that jackals remove more than 13,000 tons of organic waste across urban landscapes, saving close to US$0.5 million in waste management (6).  Maybe the jackals of Tezu were performing a similar service.

As the hours ticked by, we saw nearly seven individuals, likely consisting of the dominant pair with five smallish-looking individuals which could have been their pups. We caught fleeting glimpses of them and then we couldn’t see them anymore. A yelp in the distance instigated the jackals to start howling in chorus. Whether it was a warning to intruders or a welcome note for others of their kind to approach, or just a reminder to those listening that the night still belonged to these canids, I could not say, but it was nothing short of magical. As this canid acapella continued, it was interrupted by the barks of dogs residing in the habitations nearby.

And then, the night fell silent.

PS:  We did manage to get our candid of a jackal.

3 Responses

  1. Ishwari says:

    Awesome

  2. Anuranjan says:

    Wonderfully written, Nishant!

  3. K Srinivas says:

    Fantastic

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