After more than a century, Belgium recently witnessed the return of the wolf and the lynx due to a mix of nature and nurture reasons. Now, to the trepidation of local farmers, an entirely alien species to the country is on the verge of making an entrance: the jackal.
The expectation that the wolf-like canine will be seen for the first time follows the discovery of attacks on sheep in Kranenburg, a German municipality in North Rhine-Westphalia, just 40 miles from the Belgian border.
In September, six ravaged sheep offered gruesome evidence of the creature. “Initially it was thought that they were killed by a wolf, but now further investigation shows that the culprit is a male golden jackal,” said Jan Loos, from the animal protection organisation Welcome Wolf.
As with wolves, the golden jackal is a protected species under the Berne Convention and the EU Habitats Directive. But it is believed the major opening for both animals lies in the growing movement of people out of the countryside and into cities, leaving space for them to make the abandoned land their own.
Kranenburg is on the same route that wolves have been known to cross from Germany to the Netherlands and on to the Belgian province of Limburg.
Frederic Thoelen, a biologist at the Natuurhulpcentrum Opglabbeek, told the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper he was “almost certain that this jackal will also settle in our regions”.
“Depending on the circumstances, this could be tomorrow if necessary, but just as well within two years,” he said. “They mainly target small animals, but also chickens or sometimes even sheep. Unlike the wolf, they do not attack larger animals, such as sick or weakened cows.”
Recent years have seen an explosion in the numbers of golden jackals in northern Europe, with some 117,000 in existence by the latest official estimate.
Native to the Middle East and southern Asia, but also known to inhabit Thailand, Pakistan and India, the opportunistic omnivore arrived at the southern edge of central and eastern Europe about 8,000 years ago. Its population grew, coinciding with a reduction of grey wolf numbers in Europe in the 19th century. The two tend to avoid being in the same territory.
Bulgaria now has the largest numbers, but there are also significant populations in Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and Italy. Evidence of the animal has also been found in France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Belarus and Estonia.