Altogether 4 Golden jackal (Canis aureus) puppies came out of the burrow in June 2014 in NaturZoo Rheine, Germany. This species being rare enough in zoos made the news interesting worldwide. In addition, they were born in an enclosure that they shared with another carnivore species: the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). Bears and jackals together? It looks interesting, let’s investigate this kind of mixing and their zoo habitat!
NaturZoo Rheine is situated in Western Germany, not far from the Dutch border. As Mr. Achim Johann, the director informed us, this medium size zoo has a long tradition of keeping bears, but the former bear exhibit has become obsolete. Following the death of the last American black bear (Ursus americanus) in 2004, the zoo temporarily gave up keeping bears in that old exhibit which was rebuilt to be used by the visitors as the ‘Picnic place in the bear cage’. It proved to be very popular, but much less popular than keeping real bears in the collection… Where there is a tradition of keeping a favourite species, giving it up can easily be unacceptable for the local visitors. Thus the zoo had to think about keeping a bear species in a new and modern exhibit, of course.
Having several aspects considered, the zoo management finally chose an Asian bear species, the sloth bear, that is a recommended EEP (European Endangered Species Programme) species. However, choosing was the easier step, planning and building a new exhibit was the real challenge. The main goal was a large, ‘green’ exhibit-system, that was specific but good for any other bear species too, that was appropriate for breeding purposes (including long term separation possibilities), that provided ‘all-around views’ both for the animals and the visitors, and – finally – that was suitable for keeping another species as well.
What could this other species be? There are a lot of positive experiences of keeping bears together with other species, especially with canids, but there are examples of association with primates, felids and small carnivores, too. Sloth bears are associated successfully with rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) in Leipzig Zoo. However, in Safari Beekse Bergen (Hilvarenbeek) the keeping of bears with Stump-tailed macaques (Macaca arctoides) was stopped after an accident: a bear killed and ate a monkey in 2006. Rheine Zoo preferred a carnivore species instead. Grey wolves (Canis lupus) appeared too large and threatening for the sloth bears, dholes (Cuon alpinus) were known as very aggressive animals. Jackals were chosen instead of these species – as they were not competitors of the bears, there would be less chance of conflicts. Among jackals the golden jackal was the winner, because their distribution was overlapping with the sloth bears’.
The golden jackal is a relatively rare species in zoos. According to the international species database, only about 250-300 individuals may live in 40-50 zoos worldwide, mainly in Eastern Europe and Asia. The golden jackals live in a huge geographical range from Northwest Africa and from the Balkans in Europe through the Middle-East to Vietnam. Their territory is expanding in Europe. High densities are observed in India in the areas where – due to religious beliefs – most people do not consume beef, so there are enough cattle carcasses for free scavenging. According to the IUCN Red List the species is in the ‘Least Concern’ category. The golden jackals live in small family groups, including the strictly monogamous breeding pair and their offspring. Births occur mainly in April and May in Southeast Europe. After a 63 days gestation period 1-9, usually 2-4 pups are born in the burrow. The pups are nursed by both parents and their older siblings for about eight weeks and then they are weaned. The golden jackals are omnivorous, their diet consists of 54% food of animal origin and 46% food of plant origin. They prefer smaller animals like young gazelles or roe deer, rodents, hares, ground birds, eggs, reptiles, frogs, insects, fruits and carrion.
The golden jackal is an intelligent and daring animal, a master of survival, so it looked like a very good choice for a species to share the enclosure of the sloth bears in Rheine. The building of the exhibit began in 2007 and was finished in 2009 (it cost 750,000 Euros). The connected outdoor enclosures are 1700 m2 and 1300 m2, the house of bears is 120 m2. There is an introduction facility too, which was used for new jackals as well.
There are 3 sloth bears being kept there, the group consists of 1 male and 2 females. A pair of golden jackals arrived from the United Arab Emirates (Sharjah and Al Wabra) in 2008. However, the sexes differed very much: the female of African origin looked like a small wolf. Was she an Egyptian wolf (Canis lupus lupaster)? It was considered to be a subspecies of golden jackal before 2011, but it is known as a subspecies of grey wolf (Canis lupus) now, according to the result of genetic researches. Nevertheless, she killed the small male in 2010… Finally a pair of real golden jackals arrived from Sofia Zoo (Bulgaria) in the same year which replaced the remaining “wolf-type” female in the bear enclosure. When still in quarantine in 2011 they had the first litter and reared two pups without any problems.
The first meeting of the jackals and the bears was unspectacular. The canids were very active in investigating and showed no fear of the bears. In fact the jackals were more “tough” than the bears and joined them for feeding and even in the indoor dens. There are also observations of jackals resting and deeply sleeping on plan surface of the enclosure and the bears passing along on very close distance. Whereas the bears are taken in the indoor quarters for the night this is now impossible to manage for the jackals. The pack of jackals is now living “semi-wild” in the large enclosure (where the make use of both parts of it by moving from one to the other enclosure via tunnels). The jackals get their food as part of the sacttered food for the bears and also separate in the open indoor rooms where they have free access all the time – also over night.
As Mr. Achim Johann said the present group of jackals lives in the outdoor enclosure as ‘semi-wild’. They can dig burrows where they stay for the night too. There they gave birth for a second litter of three in 2012 and five in 2013. In any case the keepers noticed the presence of pups by the enlarged teats of the female long before the young were seen at the entrance of the burrow.
Summarizing the experiences, the management of Rheine Zoo can recommend the combination of Sloth bears with Golden jackals. It might be well feasible to combine jackals also with any other bear-species. The jackals proved to be interesting and active which also are well received by the zoo-visitors and therefore can be regarded as an attractive species.
Photo Credit: NaturZoo Rheine