Know thy neighbour: how humans know jackals in the Danube Delta

In today’s blog Mihnea Tanasescu describes the study that forms the basis of his co-authored (with Ștefan Constantinescu) forthcoming article on Golden Jackals, ‘How Knowledge of the Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) is Formed: A Report from the Danube Delta’, in Environmental Values (online first, early summer 2019). The authors combined qualitative information from interviews with images from camera traps to provide a multi-layered picture of how the space of a Romanian village is ‘created through interaction with other animals’

Video: Golden Jackal during the day. By Mihnea Tanasescu

In a context of global biodiversity loss, Europe is in the midst of large-scale wildlife comeback, mostly due to extensive abandonment of former agricultural land. The headlines follow the continued advance of wolves throughout their former Western European territory, but seldom pause on less charismatic, but equally important, species. The Golden Jackal (Canis aureus), for example, has seen such a spectacular population increase in (mostly) Eastern Europe, as to make the wolf comeback seem minor by comparison.

Screenshot of one of the camera trap videos. Here, a golden jackal eats the remains of a cow, in the company of corvids.

My work has taken me repeatedly to the Danube Delta, an extremely important ecological region in South-Eastern Europe (see Figure 1). While in this region, I heard people speak about a newcomer to the area – the Golden Jackal – and became interested in how these two species manage to live together in a territory, and how they get to know each other through cohabitation. To live together doesn’t necessarily imply living in any kind of harmony, and surely the relationship in this case is tense, as locals are quick to point out.

Figure 1. Map of the study area. Devised by Ștefan Constantinescu from a public domain source.

I devised a study (forthcoming in Environmental Values) targeted at understanding how people come to know jackals, while trying as much as possible to include the animals’ agency as well. For this work, I used three different kinds of information. I spoke with many locals of Sfântu Gheorghe, the village I focused on, about the jackal, and what they told me formed one very important kind of data. Second, I set up seven camera traps (filming day and night) that helped me understand where the jackals are, and how frequently they use the territory. And lastly, with the generous and expert help of Ștefan Constantinescu, my co-author and a geographer at the University of Bucharest, we managed to visualize the territory in which jackals and humans interact. Literally mapping the jackal’s movements brought together the information from the cameras with that from people.

We also juxtaposed historical and contemporary maps of the village where the study was conducted, and realized that much of how people and jackals interact is on the background of historical transformations to the very land underneath their feet. For example, the contemporary village is protected by dikes and plantations, and therefore the territory that people use is very clearly delimited between core areas (the village) and neighbourhood areas (immediately outside the village), and this distinction seems to be known, and mostly respected, by jackals. Our results show most jackal activity in the neighbourhood areas most firmly separated from the village (by, for example, dikes or deep channels).

You can see this on our animated map, showing all of the filming events throughout the year in the sequence in which they occurred. The dots represent the cameras and the numbers represent the filming events that each camera recorded during the year (play with the zoom function to make sure you are seeing all camera points). The ways in which the jackals respect territorial zoning suggests deep learning on their part. This is not surprising, as many animals are known to learn about the habits of other animals in the territories that they use.

Taking jackal movements, interview data, and cartographical history together allowed us to come to some surprising conclusions. For example, we realized that one of the most important senses for getting to know the jackal is that of hearing. The (mostly) nocturnal presence of the jackal comes into human consciousness through sound, as people hear the howls and barks of their neighbours, just outside the village boundary. This intrusion through sound is very important, and is at the root of the idea that the jackal is somehow evil; its voice is often likened by people to that of a screaming child. Sound itself is a peculiar phenomenon, because it has no respect for personal boundaries: it goes through walls and bodies without asking for permission, and is therefore easily experienced as an assault. The jackals, for their part, are communicating between themselves, and we can imagine the human voice carrying a similarly eerie feeling for them.

Video of Jackal at night. By Mihnea Tanasescu.

People rely on sound disproportionately to infer information about jackals, and this is often misleading. Most villagers I spoke with tended to think that jackals live in big groups. The cameras contradict this perception, though occasionally up to five animals were filmed at once. We know from studies of jackals elsewhere that they live in pairs, so groups are simply family units with immature individuals. However, it is easy to understand that hearing the nightly chorus of howling jackals would suggest greater numbers.

We further discovered important symbolic elements in how people perceive jackals. For example, most villagers associate jackals with wolves, and transfer the symbolic weight of the latter onto the former. This contributes significantly to people focusing disproportionately on the predatory behaviors of their canid neighbors. People expect jackals to be an ever-increasing economic challenge, as they are seen as capable of eating increasing numbers of domestic animals. This kind of fear is especially rooted in the precarious subsistence economy of the village. In our article, we detail further the elements of precarity that contribute to a largely negative view of jackals.

Golden Jackal. Source: Wikimedia commons (Charles Sharp)

I have written elsewhere(and here and here) about other important aspects of knowing jackals, all of which are further elaborated in the forthcoming article. We also used our findings to offer some recommendations for future management plans. But what I found most interesting is our attempt to think about the study territory – about space itself – as inherently multi-species and multi-sensory. Put simply, what this study ultimately shows is how the space of the village is created through interaction with other animals (the jackal being but an example) and is known through the use of many senses (it is not just a visual grid). This, more than any specific issues at play in a village in the Danube Delta, is what the study contributes to the increasing scholarly and societal concern with human-animal relations.

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