Jackal Hunt on the African Savannah

We witnessed a jackal hunt on the Masai Mara. The hunt was an incredible showcase of how jackals communicate and use teamwork to take down larger prey…

The black-backed jackal is one of the Masai Mara’s most prominent carnivores. It is an omnivore and has a varied and flexible diet. In general, jackals are not picky eaters. They will eat anything, from carcasses scavenged from other predators on the savannah, insects, to even berries and grass. However, they are opportunistic hunters. Jackals do not go out “on the hunt”. They do not look for or stalk for prey. The jackal hunt happens when they see an opportunity present itself. When that happens, they will seize the moment and go straight for it. 

A black-backed jackal calf and his mother
A father and his baby – though, admittedly this black-backed jackal’s cub is more of an adolescent

A Family Portrait

It was late in the afternoon, and we were returning to our lodge at Eagle View Camp after an afternoon visiting the Obama Forest and the conservation efforts at Basecamp Explorer. The sun was already low on the horizon, and the skies were beginning to darken. The long drive back through the Masai Mara had been uneventful and lulled us into complacency. All around us was the bush, occasionally populated with nothing more than an antelope or two. 

Black-backed Jackal cub and his mother in the bushes of Mara Naboisho
The cub walked up to its mother for one more loving family portrait – the father was not far away

“Jackals, with a cub”, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, pointed out. He slowed the vehicle down so we could look at the young creature, who was sitting right outside its underground den. Its parents were not far, trotting to and fro around their cub.

A young black-backed jackal about to wander off into the bushes of the Masai Mara on his own
The cub setting off to strike it out on his own, but only for a few minutes

It was a great family portrait, a tribute to family life on the savannah. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate, and it seemed the cool weather had brightened everyone’s spirits, both the jackals and us. The cub even seemed to be smiling, with a slightly curious, alert expression directed our way.

Black-backed jackal cub running in the savannah grass
The cub was heading in dad’s direction…

We rose from our seats to marvel at the little creature. Wild baby animals are always a hit, even when they are doing nothing. We began snapping photographs of the cub, who stayed in his place, right at the edge of his den. His father began to settle down not far from him.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

I scanned the area for the other jackal we had spotted earlier, most probably the mother of the cub. She was trotting back around the bushes near the road, where a mother impala and her young calf were grazing. The mother was twice the height of the jackal, and her calf was lithe and sure-footed. Both did not think the jackals were much to worry about. They were alert, but not wary.

The female jackal carelessly walked in front of the impalas, glanced at them, at us, then trotted back towards his cub and mate. Then, in a few seconds, it all began. The jackal hunt was on.

Black-backed jackal attacking adult impala, the impala has her head down in a defensive post
The male jackal starts chasing the impala and her calf (calf not in shot)

Communication and Teamwork on the Jackal Hunt

The female jackal, having caught her partner’s attention from about five meters away, gestured at the impala and her calf with his head. She alerted him to her intentions without uttering a sound.

Adult impala chasing, and trying to head butt a black-backed jackal
You might be wondering why the adult impala is chasing the jackal here – she’s trying to stop him from getting to her calf

A split second later, both jackals dashed towards the impalas, with the father having a lead of a few feet. The female jackal was not far behind. The calf alerted to the danger sprinted chaotically. Its mother, immediately aware there were two jackals after her child, gave chase, attempting to head-butt the male hot on her baby’s heels.

Black-backed jackal attacking impala calf and mother
The male jackal caught up with the impala calf, but so did its mother

It was incredible watching the teamwork put on by the pair of jackals. They were co-ordinated at every moment. The father was focused on grabbing the calf by the neck while the mother busied herself with harrying the grown impala with bites to her body, to keep her attentions busy.

Black backed jackal with its teeth around the throat of a baby impala
The male jackal caught the impala calf from under its throat – a sign that this jackal knew how to hunt antelopes

Jackal Hunt Larger Prey with Teamwork

The impalas put on a good fight. The calf, who was still relatively young, leapt in confusing bounds with no direction, misleading the jackal in pursuit. At one moment, the jackal caught its neck in its jaws and toppled it to the ground, but it managed to leap back to its feet after a moment of confusion.

Two jackals attacking a mother Impala and her calf
Mother jackal on the left and the father on the right (hidden by an annoying bush). The mother was trying to distract the adult impala

The impala tried her best to fend off the jackal attacking her and did everything she could to put her body between her child and its attackers.

The mother Impala attacking the jackal to get him off her baby
The baby was STILL ALIVE after the throat grab. The adult impala struck the male jackal with her head

However, the jackals we were observing were experienced hunters. The male jackal once again managed to topple the baby impala to the ground and grab its neck. It was soon dead.

Impala and jackals fighting over a dead body of impala's calf
The impala calf succumbed to the attacks at this point, while the fight was still going on above her dead body

The impala mother, not sure if her child was alive or dead, continued to attack the jackals.

Mother impala trying to fend off the jackals attacking her calf
The mother tried to head butt the jackals, but got her ear caught in one of their jaws

They dispersed, leaving her for a moment with the body of her calf. When she realised it was too late, she began to walk away, despondent. She crossed the dirt road and watched balefully as the jackals attended to their evening meal.

Impala mother nudging her dead calf
The poor mother trying to figure out if her calf was still alive

Reflection on Life and Death

Watching a hunt out on the African savannah for the first time can be a challenging experience. This scene was incredibly hard because there were two losses: the calf who lost her life, and the mother who lost her calf. However, the jackals also had their own little family, which included a relatively large cub which they had to feed.

black-backed jackal with a baby impala in its mouth
The jackals, taking their evening meal back to their den. Jackals that hunt in pairs are three times more likely to succeed than when hunting alone

It was a challenging moment, but an event we were, nevertheless, fortunate to witness in the flesh. Not only was it a successful hunt (the majority of hunts end in failures), it was also a great showcase of teamwork on the African plains.

Impala looking on at the jackals who had successfully hunted her baby
The mother impala, having a hard time saying goodbye…