Jackal tag-team prey on newborn gazelle

Big cats are beautiful and the ‘massive nature’ spectacle of endless herds migrating north is a bewildering vision. But, somewhere beneath the glossy brochure exterior of the ‘Big 5’ (I hate that phrase), blue skies, and picnic breakfasts out on the savannah, there is a relentless fight for survival being fought, every second, between predator and prey.

Thomson's Gazelle (Gazella thomsoni)
Female Thomson’s gazelle (Gazella thomsoni), pulling placenta off newborn fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

Through the window of our Landcruiser I could see a Tommy giving birth. It was incredibly tender as she pulled away the placenta and licked the newborn into life. For the briefest of moments, I recalled a documentary featuring small savannah predators and how they preyed on the youngest and most vulnerable. I dismissed it. This was too beautiful to ruin.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
One-month old black-backed jackal puppy (Canis mesomelas), Masai Mara, Kenya

We moved on. After about one-hundred meters we came across four very cute jackal cubs playing around their burrow. Their parents were trotting away in the background. I immediately grabbed the camera and photographed the fuzzy pups.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Two one-month old black-backed jackal puppies (Canis mesomelas), Masai Mara, Kenya

After about twenty minutes, the jeep revved into life and our guide was shouting “Hold onto your cameras!” We dashed straight back to where we had left the newborn Tommy to find it dangling from the mouth of one of the adult jackals. From the den, it had homed-in on the blood and placenta.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) preying on a newborn gazelle fawn, mother running to defend, Masai Mara, Kenya

The fawn was flinching and kicking as the jackal looked around. I think, to our collective western sensibilities, it did seem extremely unfair. The fawn was certainly going to die to feed those higher in the food chain.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) charged by Thomson’s Gazelle, Masai Mara, Kenya

The jackal continued to scan the horizon, but it did not scan far enough. Blindsided, the jackal was unaware of an adult Tommy now bearing down at full speed. It was the fawn’s mother. Hearing the pounding footfall, the jackal glanced round and was rammed at full-speed by the Tommy. The jackal crumpled and relinquished the fawn at once.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) charged by Thomson’s Gazelle, Masai Mara, Kenya

The marauder tried to sprint away, but the Tommy was all over it, ramming and butting with its small horns. Breathing hard, she slowed to watch her fawn sprinting away… right into the jaws of the second jackal. We were now watching a macabre tag team. The dazed and confused fawn ran so close the jackal barely had to move and snapped its jaws around its throat.

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) preying on newborn Thomson’s Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

In that instant, the mother charged again. The jackal could not run fast enough with the fawn hanging from its mouth. Seeing the Tommy close in, the jackal dropped the fawn and sprinted away with the mother in close pursuit. Then the tables turned. Another jackal, sensing the Tommy’s exhaustion, gave chase and hunted down the mother while its partner hunted the fawn. But the mother Tommy never conceded defeat. As soon as she had outrun her pursuer, she instinctively turned the tables once more, charging back to rescue her fawn.

Finally, after being throttled four times, the jackals gave up the chase. It was a bitter defeat for the dogs, having expended so much energy into this hunt. I glanced back and forth between the panting jackals and the fawn galloping away into the Tommy herd. Together, the jackals trotted back to their den to rest and wait for the next birth.