The year was 2018 on a warm summer's night in Bakerganj, Barisal. On the eve of our last day at Bakerganj, I stood on the roof of our research station with a bunch of my students. As we looked down from the roof into the darkness, we saw to our utter astonishment, three golden jackals sitting in a line staring up at us. They did not move, even when they saw us notice them. It seemed that they had come to say goodbye.
Rewind to June 2016.
I had been thinking about a very interesting comment made by a person from Bakerganj about how Jackals, known as 'Shiyal' in Bangla, were faring in an anthropized habitat and had become less shy, fearing people less and actively sought out chickens. Being in academia, teaching environmental science, I immediately decided to investigate the matter and design a study to get to the bottom of this.
The Eurasian golden jackal or golden jackal, often simply called jackal, prefers to avoid human contact at all costs. It is one of the ten carnivore species that live in close association with humans.
Jackal lives in rural and suburban areas, where some traces of homesteads still exist. Other than these, it also dwells in grasslands, coastal marshes and forest peripheries. Crepuscular habitat and the preference of habitats work out well for these mesopredators, making it possible to live in close vicinity of humans.
You can understand why we were so surprised to see this trio of an animal we had barely seen in two years. Such a unique change in their natural behaviour required in-depth analysis. Bakerganj was the obvious choice of location for the study.
For two years I took groups of students into the field. We talked to locals, interviewed farmers, conducted workshops and carried out scientific behavioural studies to figure out what was causing the jackals to stalk the livestock and poultry without caring about the human presence.
What we found out changed our entire outlook on these animals and their behaviour. Jackals are notoriously shy, but they had started to risk their life by actively seeking out prey in chicken pens and poultry farms. In other words, jackals were forced to do this. With ever-shrinking habitats and less and less natural food available, it was a survival move in an ever-increasingly hostile world.
Rapid gentrification, an increase in human population and business, were suppressing these animals into increasingly narrow habitats, and to top it off these harmless creatures were being hunted, trapped and mass poisoned because they cause harm to crops and were posing a threat to human presence.
But what amazed us most was this display of perception, understanding and intelligence on our eve of departure. How did they know where we were that night? What was this display? Was it gratitude? Empathy? It was as if they knew this was our last night in Bakerganj.
More openness in jackals calls for further in-depth study, but what is obvious is that these animals possess a much higher level of conscience and comprehension than we give them credit for.
Yes, there are scientific studies that have been conducted and are still being conducted on animal communication, and we all are aware of the level of bonding between pets and their owners, but for wild animals to show such levels of understanding, even compassion from such a distance while being constantly persecuted opens up a whole new array of possibilities.
In the wildlife management arena, studies are broadening, perspectives are changing and the need to engage all stakeholders is becoming more and more imperative. Perspectives, views and attitudes are vital for wildlife management professionals to devise appropriate plans and policies.
But how do these animals feel? What can they contribute to the management scheme? What level of engagement needs to happen with them? Is that even possible? From what we have seen in Bakerganj, that answer seems to shift ever so slightly to 'yes'!
Zoheb Khan has been working as an environmental professional since 2010 in sectors ranging from climate change and gender issues to Wildlife Management and conservation. His work with Jackals started in 2016 when he was a Lecturer at Independent University Bangladesh where he was conducting a study on Human Jackal conflict in Bakerganj, Barishal.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.