Urban Wildlife Series: Sri Lankan Jackal (Canis aureus naria)

Being conscious about your health is a mighty good thing, and most seem to maintain this by engaging in morning or evening walks – or dashes – along the pathways built within close proximity to Colombo’s urban wetlands. So while you are on the run (not from the law, better not), if you come across a very handsome looking dog with mottled fur, who darts into the bushes after throwing a cursory glance your way, don’t worry. It’s not Uncle Stuart’s beloved Rex but a Sri Lankan jackal (Canis aureus naria)! Jackal, in Colombo?!? I mean, fat chance seeing them in a national park, but to actually see them in Colombo, out of all the places?

Well, yes! There was actually this wonderful sighting in Thalangama recently (and one a few months earlier), and Thalangama is an area which is as urban as it gets. 

Now the accepted way to address a jackal in Sinhala would be by calling it හිවලා / Hiwalā, considering the root of the word which stems from Sanskrit.

Shrigala (Sanskrit) -> Sigāla (Pali) -> Siwalā (Sinhala) -> Hiwalā 

But a jackal is also addressed as නරියා / Nariyā, which is now used to mean fox in Sinhala. The apparent confusion and the misconception that there were foxes in Sri Lanka stems from the fact that the same word in Tamil நரி / Nari, is used to address both fox and jackal, in a general sense (there are other specific terms which are used to address these two creatures but some are outdated and not in use). Some of you might have come across a term called குள்ள நரி / Kulla Nari (kulla meaning dwarf or short stature), which is the word used to address the Sri Lanka jackal in the Jaffna Tamil dialect. You might be thinking “all this for one word?”, but that’s how a language evolves over time and space.

If we shift our perspective from the linguistic towards the animalistic, you begin to see that they truly are resourceful creatures. The Sri Lankan jackal is a subspecies of the golden jackal (Canis aureus), which calls habitat for a truly large range which stretches from South-east Asia towards Eastern Europe. 

Sri Lankan jackals are the same build but less heavy than a normal free-ranging dog you find in a city. Jackals have a relatively slender snout, longer frame and legs, and a bristly coat with a bushy tail which can be reddish or yellowish red, with grey speckles when compared with a free-ranging dog. They are opportunistic omnivores, which means that they are not picky about what they eat. That, along with the fact that they can tolerate cold and dry conditions, was the boost that gave them the ability to spread throughout the island. Even though they have the ability to tolerate cold conditions, they get scarcer with the increase in altitude. Jackals are quite wary of human presence and will adopt a nocturnal lifestyle if humans are near their habitat, otherwise they are cathemeral (meaning animals that are active during both day [diurnal] and night [nocturnal]).

Sri Lankan Jackal photographed in the Thalangama Wetland. Photograph by Thikula Samaradivakara.

When we consider their diet, jackals are happy with rodents, birds, the young of grazing animals (such as spotted deer), vegetables, and fruits. When they hunt, they utilize their excellent sense of hearing to pinpoint their prey and once the target is locked on, they pounce on it to render their prey immobile. Jackals are excellent scavengers as well and utilize their perfect sense of smell to locate decaying carcasses from miles away. By scavenging, they help to break down the organic material in a carcass as nutrients, back into the ecosystem. If the carcasses are disposed of in a timely manner, they help in the prevention of diseases among animals. So jackals really do a thankless job to the ecosystem which they are a part of.

Folklore around the world where jackals are found have spun tales on their cunning nature, and their intelligence. But nowhere does it merit their excellent parenting skills. Yes, jackals are model parents and practise monogamy, where they stick with one partner until their death. They practise this so much so that the basic social unit of jackals is a mated pair or a mated pair and their young. They go on about nearly every major aspect in their social life together, namely rearing their young, foraging, hunting, resting and protecting their territory from intruders. In fact, the sync increases their chances of netting good prey by a factor of three when compared with a solitary individual. The jackal’s bond is so strong that it has been observed that when one parent dies, it is unlikely that the rest of the family survives (if they are not mature enough to fend for themselves).

But, jackals have found a way to clear that hurdle as well, in the form of “helpers”. Mostly these “helpers” are pups from a previous litter and they act as assistants to their parents. Their presence has an indirect benefit on the young pups as the parents can spend more time foraging and hunting, which in turn means more sustenance for the pups aiding in their uninterrupted growth. Plus with the aid of these helpers, they can manipulate a carcass more quickly than a solitary individual can, and defend it from other animals. Sightings with such helpers may have given rise to reports of large packs hunting together, which is quite uncommon.

An affectionate mated pair grooming (L) and jackal pups (L). Image by Chandika Jayaratne primary investigator of the Sri Lankan Jackal Project.

Since Sri Lanka is a tropical country, jackal births occur throughout the year. A healthy mother can give birth to litters for up to eight years. After a gestation period of approximately two months, an average of two to four pups per litter can be expected. Jackal pups are absolutely adorable and will have your jaw on the floor like you saw something scandalous. They are nursed for about two months and then introduced to solid foods. Because of the bond their parents have, they are well protected, and if a threat is sensed, parents “rumble growl” and “predator bark” to warn the pups to take refuge, while one of the parents drives off the potential threat, should the occasion call for it. The location of a jackal “den” also aids in the defense of its pups, as it is mostly a hollow interior with only one entrance which an adult can guard without much hassle.

There is a Sri Lankan myth about the purported “jackal’s horn” or “narric-comboo”. This bony, cone-shaped structure about half an inch long, found on a jackal’s forehead is said to grant wishes to its owner, or guarantee the holder victory from any lawsuit (from the way things are done in the legal environment these days, looks like every single of the accused have a jackal’s horn with them). It is also said that only one jackal in a 1,000 possesses this horn, and is the leader of all jackals. Given that a real jackal skull does not have a true “horn”, this is either a protrusion, deformity, or a skin tumor behind the jackal’s sagittal crest. Or in most cases, a tuft of hair that’s matted into the shape of a horn, leading to this misconception. 

Given the fact that the alpha predator that we are most familiar with, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), has a restricted distribution based on the availability of suitable habitats, the Sri Lankan jackal is the top predator in most of Sri Lanka, and controls animal populations to maintain a healthy ecosystem balance. If jackals are culled without reason, this can mean a boom in the population of pests and vermin species who can do real harm, not just to the environment but to human settlements as well. Now you understand the extent of the service that they provide. 

The threats that they face currently include habitat loss, and death caused by humans – driven by the fear that jackals infect other animals with rabies. Sure they could be carriers of rabies (all mammals are), but in most cases it’s unvaccinated pet cats and dogs that infect wild animals with diseases such as rabies – there are also cases on jackals getting severe cases on mange from domestic animals. So we can all do our part by vaccinating our pets, and street dogs to curb the spread rather than to vilify wild animals.

A jackal infected with mange. Image by Chandika Jayaratne primary investigator of the Sri Lankan Jackal Project.

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