A golden opportunity for Greece's jackals | WWF

A golden opportunity for Greece's jackals

Posted on
26 March 2003

Jackals have long been victim to rumours and superstitions. Linked to death and evil spirits in Egyptian times, they have the same reputation for slyness in Middle Eastern fables as the fox has in European fables. Even today, jackals have a reputation for being sneaky, skulking scavengers and nuisance animals that steal domestic sheep and lambs. In reality, jackals are nearly 50 per cent vegetarian, feeding on fruits and berries. The other half of their diet comes mainly from carrion and hunting small animals like reptiles, frogs, fish, rodents, rabbits, insects, and ground-dwelling birds. Although they do take the occasional lamb, jackals can also benefit agriculture by keeping the number of rodents and rabbits down. Their negative public image is more than just a simple case of mistaken identity, however. In Greece, this reputation is seriously affecting the survival of the country's golden jackals (Canis aureus). Golden jackals have the widest distribution of all jackal species, ranging across north and east Africa, south Eastern Europe and south Asia to Burma. In Greece 30 years ago, they could be found along the length of the coast, in low-altitude wetlands, and even on the island of Corfu. Not being as well liked in the public mind as other large mammals, little research has been carried out on Greece's golden jackals since the 1970s. The first comprehensive and scientific research on the animals did not take place until three years ago: worried by indications that the population was declining, in 2000 WWF-Greece undertook a comprehensive assessment of golden jackal distribution, abundance, and habitat characteristics. The results were alarming. In the last 30 years, jackal numbers and distribution have shrunk considerably all over the country and many local extinctions have occurred. The population has plummeted to less than 1000, and their range is now restricted to isolated populations on continental Greece and on the island of Samos in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. The situation is particularly grave in southern Greece, where each isolated population is very small. The isolated and scattered nature of Greece's golden jackals makes them extremely vulnerable to natural catastrophes and further human-induced disturbances. The isolated groups are also very vulnerable to hunting. Labelled as "vile and harmful" animals, hunting of jackals was legal in Greece until 1990. Between 1974 and 1980, almost 4,000 animals were killed in just two prefectures of Greece's southern peninsular, Peloponnese. The jackals are also increasingly becoming victims of road accidents, baiting, and illegal hunting. Golden jackals are the only medium-to-large mammal to show such a rapid decline in Greece in the last three decades, and are now the country's rarest canid species. WWF believes the major factor behind this decline is habitat destruction through drainage of wetlands, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and changes in animal husbandry practises. To counter this, WWF-Greece has begun an intensive programme to ensure the long-term preservation of the animals. One part of this work involves field research and monitoring of the animals in order to determine the exact cause of their decline. The other part is to try and improve the animal’s public image in order to make it easier to take measures for its conservation. This work includes a series of lectures, presentations, interviews, and publications on a local and national level. A survey of people who live in areas where there are jackals is also being conducted, so that people's opinions on jackals can be taken into consideration before any further steps are taken. Convincing people that jackals are not "vile" is not always easy. Antonis is a shepherd from the village of Monastiraki near the coastal wetland area of Mornos in Fokida, south western Greece. He is outraged at the suggestion that jackals should be conserved. "Jackals have killed almost one hundred of my sheep," he says. Fortunately, others have a different opinion. Vassilis, who lives in the same village as Antonis, claims to be an 'environmentalist hunter': "We've never hunted jackals here. I've lived in this area for 38 years and I see jackals about all the time," he says. And Giorgis, the coffee-shop owner and shepherd, says “I love to hear jackals howling, they never cause any damage to us.” His position is shared by Polyxeni and her brother, a regular hunter. Polyxeni has joined WWF’s team several times during their field expeditions and gives very vivid descriptions of the animals, which haunted her dreams when she was a child. Even more promising is that as a result of WWF's work, people are not only changing their minds about jackals, but are now actively helping to save them. On the island of Samos, Giannis, a renowned hunter, and his friend Tassos have become the most enthusiastic jackal protectors. “I will never shoot jackals again,” says Giannis. He has also learnt how to monitor jackal movements through radio tracking and has been a big help to the WWF team. With defenders like Giannis, Tassos, Polyxeni, Giorgis, and Vassilis, the golden jackal's future looks a little brighter. * Alexandra Chaini is Head of Communications at WWF-Greece. Notes for editors WWF's golden jackal project WWF-Greece has been working since 2000 to ensure the long-term preservation of the golden jackal in Greece, by facilitating the stabilization and recovery of its population. As well as an education campaign to improve the jackal's image in Greece, field work is being carried out to determine the exact cause of its decline, for example, reduced prey abundance, reduced daytime cover, higher than normal mortality, or inbreeding problems.