Animals: “Cheeky” cattle robbers: Jackals in the line of fire in Romania

Golden jackals are spreading in Europe, especially in Romania. Because they are said to cause a lot of damage there, they are hunted. Wolves are also being discussed to ward off jackals. Helping should be something completely different.

If this noise weren’t so drawn out, it could have been mistaken for a cock’s crow. But the high-pitched whine in the Romanian Danube Delta village of Maliuc on this spring morning, still in the dark, between five and six o’clock, lasts significantly longer than the rooster’s morning greeting. It sounds like howling jackals coming through the closed windows in the pounding rain.

“The jackals are getting bolder, they’re no longer shy, they look at you and challenge you,” says farmer Vasile Staicu. If it were up to him, everyone here would be given a rifle to use to kill any jackal they saw on the spot. Regular hunting is only permitted in organized groups, with a three-day permit. “The jackals killed 25 calves this year alone, compared to 40 last year,” complains Staicu, breeder of a sizeable herd of 500 cattle. “They ate me ten chickens, now I only have seven hens and one rooster,” he continues.

Estimate: 117,000 golden jackals across Europe

In Romania, as in other parts of Europe, golden jackals are spreading. The expert network Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe estimated their number at 117,000 specimens in Europe in 2019 – there is no more recent data. They are also present in Germany – comparatively rarely. And some have even been sighted in colder Scandinavia.

In Romania there are currently said to be almost 29,000. At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, the jackal migration to Romania started from two directions: via Bulgaria and from the Caucasus because of climate change, says Mihai Marinov, a biologist at the Danube Delta Research Institute in Tulcea, the largest city of the region.

For about ten years, they are said to have repeatedly caused damage to farms, especially in the Danube Delta. The media are full of stories about it – probably influenced by the bad reputation of the jackals from mythology: In ancient Egypt they were “companions to the dead”, in the Bible they are associated with wasteland, poverty and ruin.

In his smartphone, farmer Staicu has gruesome photos of young cattle that jackals are said to have mauled: bites in the stomach and mouth, tongues bitten out, but also cows that remained alive and the jackals are said to have eaten their udders away. Farmer Ionel Radion reports something similar: Two of his calves this year and ten in the previous year were torn. “The jackals have invaded the barn. I no longer let my hundred chickens roam freely, I keep them as if in prison, behind brick walls, with a metal net fence.”

Traditionally, cattle, sheep and poultry roam freely on the pastures in the Danube Delta – and this unguarded, day and night. The ecologist Ovidiu Banea sees this type of animal husbandry, which is common in many parts of Romania, as the main reason for the rapid reproduction of the jackals. “The cows calve in the pasture and leave the placenta there. The jackals eat it and then take an interest in the calf,” he says.

Jackal researcher Jennifer Hatlauf from the Institute for Wildlife Biology and Hunting Management at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna sees this as a problem. On the other hand, farm animals graze outside in Central Europe too. “We have already noticed tears from young sheep and goats in Austria, Germany and Denmark, among other places. However, this should not be seen as the main food of golden jackals. This is a generalist who usually eats what is easy to catch”, says Hatlauf.

Hunting in family groups

The jackal, which also eats carrion and plants, tends to prey on smaller mammals such as mice and rats. A cow is usually a size too big for him, but he dares to take on a newborn calf. The jackal weighs up to ten kilos. It is larger than a fox, smaller than a wolf and mostly hunts at night with the family.

The ecologist Banea camps several times a year with a group of biologists for a few days in the Danube Delta to get information about the number of jackals. He uses a megaphone to simulate howling jackals in the wild. It is observed whether and how many jackals respond. The coyote researchers in the USA are proceeding in a similar way.

According to the biologist Marinov, the chaotic handling of animal waste by the Romanian farmers is an attraction for the jackals. “They just throw their dead cats, chickens and piglets on the outskirts of the village instead of burning them properly,” he complains. “This is how the very intelligent jackals learn bad habits, they make the outskirts of villages their territories. After they have eaten the garbage, they also find open barn doors”.

Nevertheless, Marinov does not entirely trust the farmers’ statements about the damage: “They demonize the jackals. We carried out a questionnaire campaign among them. When we asked questions afterwards, we sometimes found that the attacks could also have come from red foxes, or from the many feral dogs that cause us problems here. Sometimes the damage reports were pure inventions.” Marinov also considers the horror story circulating in Romania’s media about jackals, which are said to have rummaged in the graves for food in the Danube Delta village of Caraorman, to be unproven.

Marinov: Knowing far too little about the behavior of golden jackals

Far too little is known about the behavior of the golden jackal in the delta, Marinov wrote in 2022 as a co-author of an article in the journal Acta Zoologica Bulgarica. There is only one doctoral thesis from 2004, for which the stomach contents of 68 animals were examined. Among other things, it turned out that they are looking for food in the garbage. Plastic and paper were found in some stomachs. But now the investigations are to be renewed and intensified. “We now want to have 150 jackal stomachs – we have signed a contract with the hunting club for this,” says Marinov.

However, Marinov considers hunting as a means against jackals to be completely unsuitable, even counterproductive: “If their numbers are artificially reduced, they simply have more young.” This was also shown by studies from Bulgaria, adds his colleague Hatlauf. The official figures from Romania also support this: from 2017 to the beginning of this year, according to the Ministry of the Environment, the number of golden jackals rose from an estimated 12,500 to around 28,900 – although several thousand were killed every year. There was a downward dip in 2019 with a population of only around 10,500 animals. Just a year later, the number of estimated specimens shot up again to around 17,500.

Female jackals can have two, but also six to seven puppies in a litter, depending on the nutritional situation. Therefore, according to Marinov, the only way to curb the spread of jackals is to limit their diet – through more controlled livestock farming and, above all, through proper disposal of animal remains.

Are wolves disappearing as a cause of jackal overpopulation?

Viorel Rosca, director of the Macin Mountains National Park, which borders the Danube Delta, thinks differently. He believes the peasants are completely innocent, given that their style of herding had been practiced in the region for centuries without attracting jackals. Rosca believes the cause of the jackal overpopulation is the disappearance of wolves, which were hunted to near extinction in the Delta during Communism. That’s why he now wants to settle wolves there so that they drive away the jackals. Scientists agree that jackals and wolves compete for almost the same prey.

Jackals avoid wolves because they instinctively feel threatened by them. But the experts also agree that a wolf would hardly eat a jackal. At most he would kill him as a competitor. The researcher Marinov doubts that the settlement of wolves makes sense. Cattle and sheep would be even more in danger from the wolves, he says. Farmer Staicu thinks similarly: “It would mean that we drive out the devil and get his mother in return.”


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