Where the Wild Things Aren’t

When we found a starving young golden jackal on the piece of land where we live, we were shocked by its pitiful state, but we were not surprised. Since they put cell towers up on the mountain above the island capital—about three miles from us—one of the traditional homes of the golden jackal has become uninhabitable. The mountain is dying.

The wild things aren’t on the mountain any more. Many, presumably, have died, either because they can no longer breed successfully or because they have been killed by exposure to the cell tower radiation over the years. Other creatures have moved away, because they can no longer find food, the insects or small mammals that they hunt.

The mountain was a refuge for many wild creatures. It has pine forest and maquis, that ubiquitous Mediterranean brushland composed of a variety of bushes, grasses and wildflowers which makes an excellent habitat for all sort of creatures to live and breed, from wild boar and golden jackals to tiny harvest mice and voles. It is free of pesticides, since there is no cultivated land past a certain point, and many of the olive groves on the lower slopes are abandoned. It ought to be—and was—teeming with life.

If you go walking on the dirt roads up there, you can tell that the mountain is dying. You no longer see—or hear—many birds or insects. The silence is distressing. You find almost no signs of creatures having been there, either: feathers torn off a captured bird, owl pellets, footprints of birds or animals in the dust or the mud of puddles, or animal droppings, the size of which gives a good indication of what sort of animal it was. Jackal droppings, for instance, are full of tiny seeds from the fruits and berries that make up 60 percent of their diet.

Another sign that life on the mountain is going extinct is the wild fruit trees—the carobs and almonds and figs which form a staple for birds and small rodents as well as insects. Tree rats eat the seeds from the carob pods and pick the almonds, as do the birds. Everything loves sweet, juicy figs: birds, rodents, jackals and the insects that burrow into the fallen fruits. So when you pass by large trees where the carob pods lie on the ground uneaten, the almonds have all fallen onto the ground untouched, and the figs are all lying on the ground withering but perfectly whole, you can be sure that there are no wild things nearby to eat them.

A final clue that life on the mountain is not what it was is the lack of bats in the evening. If there are no insects to catch, there are no bats either. Whether you see bats in the evening is a good indicator of how much insect life there is about, since you can’t always see the insects.

The creatures that are dying out—the territorial birds and small creatures which haven’t much of a range—will eventually go extinct, at least those most affected by the ambient radiation from the cell towers. How can a field mouse move several miles away, even if it knows that its environment is no longer habitable? It’s just too far. Larger creatures like boar and jackals become displaced, but this creates other problems, for themselves and for people.

Boar, for instance, tend to tear up the ground looking for snails. After a family of boar spend a night in an olive grove, it looks rather as if it’s been shelled. They also clamber over stone walls and collapse them. Although boar aren’t overly dangerous you wouldn’t want to corner one or give it the idea that you are a threat to its piglets. They are very big and have formidable teeth, so people leave them alone.

Jackals are faring much worse from the displacement caused by the cell towers. People are afraid of jackals, because their howl is an eerie sound, and a pack of jackals howling nearby can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Because they are pack animals, people wrongly fear that the jackals might attack them. This is nonsense, because golden jackals are surprisingly small—not much bigger than a large cat. They will, if they are hungry, forage in rubbish bins or go after chickens—and cats. As a result, and despite the fact that golden jackals are officially a protected species, people poison them.

This is what happened to a family of jackals in our area. We think the jackal we found was the only survivor, a young male who presumably didn’t get to the poisoned food in time, or didn’t get enough of it to kill him. We think he knew his way here because we are in the habit of leaving dishes of water around for the birds, insects and other creatures, and we are often visited by families of jackals who come at night to hunt and drink. It was months before we realized he was living here (though something was regularly going through the compost heap and eating the vegetable scraps) and when we finally saw him, he was skin and bones. It is very hard for a pack animal to hunt effectively on its own, and he wasn’t doing well. Hunting takes energy.

So we started feeding him, and gave him a name. He’s called Jack, and while he doesn’t come to his name, he knows it, and will pause to look at us when we call him. He’s a clever little creature, and we are very fond of him, but we have not tried to make a pet of him because we don’t want him to learn to trust people. For the same reason, we haven’t told anyone here that he exists. We don’t want anyone throwing poison in here.

The food he gets from us is very precious to him, and he shows up every day just after sunset for his meal. A good example of how quickly he learns happened about a week after we started feeding him. We were late because we had stopped by the neighbors on our way home, and it was getting dark. Jack had obviously learned the sound of our engine, so he knew where were. When we came out, he was waiting by the car as if to say, “Have you forgotten me? I’m hungry!” He ran off as soon as he knew we were coming, and was waiting by his dish when my husband arrived with his food. On another occasion when we were late coming home from a walk down the cliffs, we found him waiting outside the front gate.

So Jack hasn’t starved to death, but he has been very lonely without his pack. I don’t think it is easy to join another pack, because they are families. He comes around at nights and sits or hunts nearby; clearly he likes having company of sorts. He is playful and mischievous, and he sometimes steals small objects—including bars of soap from the outside tap—which he hides deep in a bush somewhere. He loves to be sung to, and will sit half-hidden with his huge ears poking up while you sing. His favorite is “It’s a long way to Tipperary” but he also like the Beatles. Jackal howls can be very musical, and I have often wondered if perhaps they too sing, in their way.

Wikipedia, that online encyclopedia of misinformation, calls jackals “little wolves” but they are not wolves, they are dogs. Their Latin name is Canis Aureus (golden dog) and they are known for their quick intelligence. They aren’t golden but cinnamon-colored with black backs, though they can look grey in shadow or twilight. They blend so well into the environment that they can be several feet away and yet invisible.

Jack is less lonely these days, because a couple of months ago another starving young jackal turned up, and now we are feeding her too. She’s called Bambi because she moves and jumps with the grace of a small deer—so much so that if there were any deer on this island we might have mistaken her for one. She too is a lovely little creature, and for the first few days she would follow my husband around at a discreet distance, watching as he watered the fruit trees. Like Jack, she has been quick to learn her name and our habits.

These days Jack and Bambi often wait together for their food, and they are starting to hunt in tandem. At least here there are still things to hunt, because we are farther from the cell towers (about as far as you can get on this island) and have a good selection of wildlife—birds, tree rats, field and harvest mice, voles, stoats, weasels, pine martins, lizards, chameleons, snakes—all of which we try to encourage by leaving their habitats intact as best we can.

So Jack and Bambi are okay for now, but we worry about the future. If they mate, how will we afford to feed the whole family? How will we keep their presence secret? What will happen to them and all the wildlife here if they put up more cell towers—or 5G? What will happen to the other jackal families around here who are barely making a living as it is?

Wildlife needs wild spaces where they can live freely to roam and hunt and breed—places like the mountain that is no longer theirs. When we take their places away from them by making them uninhabitable—as we do when we put up cell towers that poison their environment—we are in effect killing them, whether we mean to or not. If we want the wild things to exist we must ban wireless technology. And we must do this very soon, or it will be too late.

To see a video of golden jackals and hear them howling, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0v0GrfplEM and

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