With complete disregard for political boundaries, the golden jackal (Canis aureus) settles down in shrub-land near Prague.
An individual golden jackal repeatedly modeled for the cameras as researchers documented its unprecedented move into the Czech Republic.
The jackal’s arrival in the Czech Republic, however, raises questions about its legal status in the country and across the EU.
The golden jackal (Canis aureus) is now calling the Czech Republic its home. From June 2015 to March 2016 scientists from Charles University in Prague captured photos of the first living golden jackal in the Czech Republic. Considered native to the Balkan region, the golden jackal has a natural distribution from north of Tanzania in Africa to the Middle East to Thailand in Asia. Singular jackals have been known to roam beyond these borders, but this is the first evidence of a golden jackal taking up permanent residence northwest of the Hungarian-Austrian border.
Scientists recorded the jackal about 40 kilometers east of Prague in an open grass-shrubland multiple times over the course of nine months. Klára Pyšková, graduate student at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences at Charles University, set up twelve camera traps to track carnivore species in the area. Pyšková anticipated surveying the usual Czech mammals, but snapping a picture of a golden jackal was unexpected. Even more surprising, was the fact that she and her team recorded over 57 sightings of the same jackal, proving its persistent colonization.
Prague’s golden jackal persisted over winter, which took researchers aback, because all previous records of the animal in the Czech Republic were thought to be incidental — either of jackals that were shot dead or victims of road-kill. It wasn’t until very recently, in the 1950s, that jackals began breeding as far north as the Hungary-Austrian border. In the last few years, jackals roamed through the Netherlands and Estonia, but scientist found no permanent residents. This golden jackal in Prague is the first evidence of a golden jackal actually living in the Czech Republic.
“The factors driving or facilitating the golden jackal’s expansion are still not entirely clear although land use changes, as well as climate change, are most likely implicated,” the researchers write in the paper published in ZooKeys.
Researchers believe that an increase in deforestation across Europe could benefit jackals by decreasing habitat for their main predator, wolves. Changing landscapes for agriculture and human development may also provide foraging and hunting opportunities for the adaptable omnivore.
Scientists also believe that climate change is allowing the spread of multiple species from southeastern Europe to increasingly temperate habitat in the northwest. While there’s no direct evidence that the golden jackal’s range expansion is due to climate change, the species could certainly benefit from warming trends. Other large mammals, like the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and brown bear (Ursus arctos), are progressing from the southeast to the northwest. In this scenario, the wolf and bear are reclaiming territory they historically inhabited. But scientists believe that golden jackals are not native to Northwestern Europe, which they’re now calling home.
Alien or not?
Determining whether or not the jackal’s expansion is native or alien will define the future of its protection in the European Union. For example, at one time officials in Estonia and Latvia considered jackals of unknown origin to be an alien species, subject to unlimited lethal removal.
Golden jackals do not receive special protections under the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). They are however, protected under the 1992 European Union’s Habitats Directive.
This directive promotes biodiversity and the conservation of threatened species and their natural habitats. It also acts as a mechanism to control invasive, alien species.
“The golden jackal historically never lived here, therefore we probably cannot call it native,” said Psykova.
And yet, jackals are not classified as an alien or invasive species either. Invasive species are intentionally or unintentionally introduced to new areas by humans; the jackal was not intentionally released into the Czech Republic ecosystem. But was its range expansion catalyzed, in part, by anthropogenic climate change?
This would classify the golden jackal as an alien species, because it was introduced to a new area under human auspices. If this were true, golden jackals could be hunted until eradication, as they were in Estonia and Latvia. However, the EU specifically says that the term “alien” does not apply to any species changing their natural range in response to climate change. Given the circumstances of its dispersal, the jackal’s future seems murky under current laws, at best.
For instance, the golden jackal is a ‘species of Community interest’ under the Habitats Directive, listed in Annex V. Thanks to this designation, the golden jackal is subject to differing legal protections in every political border it crosses. States must use their best judgment in interpreting if the golden jackal is indeed an alien species in their state. As it currently stands, the Habitat Directive does prevent the eradication of a species if they are spontaneously arriving and attempting to establish themselves, as the golden jackal seems to be.
In six countries, golden jackals are currently prohibited from being captured or hunted. In 14 countries, they can be hunted in accordance with national hunting laws. In most other countries jackals are unregulated.
Based on the golden jackal’s recent rate of colonizing new areas, it’s likely that the jackal in Prague will soon grow to be a territorial group. As the EU wrestles with determining this species’ status, conservation programs across national boundaries will continue to contradict one another.
“All this information and assumptions are based on a few records and it is very hard to predict the impact this species might have in the future,” said Pyšková. But some farmers are concerned that they will prey on livestock. “For now [I believe] there is no threat [to livestock] from jackals; the numbers are probably very low still [in the Czech Republic], we have no records of breeding and it might take some time before we see a stable population.”
The research on golden jackals and their movement is just beginning, and researchers plan to keep observing their expansion. Jackals are known for their cunning adaptability and they’ve put their resourcefulness to good use. Patterns of deforestation and climate change opened up ideal habitat in Northwestern Europe, and jackals seem to be taking advantage of this ready-made habitat.
Pyšková, K., Storch, D., Horáček, I., Kauzál, O., & Pyšek, P. (2016). Golden jackal (Canis aureus) in the Czech Republic: the first record of a live animal and its long-term persistence in the colonized habitat. ZooKeys. doi:10.3897/zookeys.641.10946