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Creature Feature - Black-backed jackal

The jackal-headed god Anubis played a pivotal role in the funerary rights of Ancient Egypt. He monitored the Scales of Truth to protect the dead from eternal death and conducted the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, amongst other important official duties. Anubis probably got the job by association because jackals were always hanging around Egyptian burial grounds. This suggests that visibility and persistence can get you deified or at least elected to high office, even if you have a thin CV and dubious motives. By David Muirhead

To be fair, jackals didn’t actually apply for a job in the Egyptian pantheon but they have always been granted the capacity for cunning. In African folktales they are usually portrayed as tricksters who exploit the gullibility of other supposedly lovable and affable creatures. Such stories invariably end with the dimwit hero outwitting the jackal, an outcome that tends to disappoint cynics and leave lingering doubts about the efficacy of natural justice.

Having a name synonymous with treachery and deceit in popular culture is bad enough but jackals have slid even further down the slippery slope of opprobrium. They are still regarded by some as vermin and hunted or poisoned in many areas of southern Africa, in effect becoming victims of their own success. Jackals live on their wits, something that has enabled them to survive and even flourish in areas outside game re-serves where other large carnivores were long ago exterminated to make way for sheep and people who’ve still got plenty of bullets left over from killing the last lion.

Black-backed jackals are omnivorous and, like most of us, they certainly enjoy lamb chops. Given the opportunity they will prey on accessible livestock, especially those that are weak or incapacitated. However, by far and away the bulk of their diet consists of wild fare. Typical menus include lizards, insects, rodents, small mammals and even items as large as impala and juvenile wildebeest, the latter brought down in rarely witnessed cooperative hunts. They also chew grass to aid digestion and eat fruit and berries to the extent that the Jackal-berry, a fruit bearing tree, is named after them.

In game reserves where major carnivores are thankfully still alive and able to attend to their daily chores, black-backed jackals are probably best known as highly nimble and opportunistic camp followers. They frequently shadow lions, hyenas and even the diminutive honey badger in anticipation of a free meal. They don’t always wait at a kill until the formal diners have retired for brandy and cigars, being prepared to take the occasional big risk by darting in to snatch a morsel from within inches of a lion’s massive paws, a liberty they don’t usually take with leopards or cheetahs.

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