Few creatures outwit the fox in Aesop’s Fables . But Indian foxes are not contenders for the role of the wily trickster, says animal ecologist Abi Tamim Vanak. “They are cute but slightly dumb,” he declares.
For instance, he says, every member of a family of foxes that had made its home in a large mound in Nannaj in Maharashtra, fell into a nearby well one by one and drowned. You’d think that seeing the deep hole in the ground every day, they’d learn to skirt it. Being careless is a sign of being dim-witted, says the researcher.
However, when Vanak tried to trap foxes in Maharashtra, he didn’t have an easy time. American researchers studying kit foxes would set cage traps and throw a sausage in, and by morning, they’d have their animals. But Indian foxes didn’t fall for that. They seemed content to eat any food lying around the cage but refused to enter it. Vanak enticed them with grapes, boiled eggs, dog food, and even cat food. Nothing worked. He would have been better off digging a well.
What Vanak did trap were domestic cats, jungle cats, a flock of babblers, and even a dog that was too big for the trap and managed to back out of it. If all these creatures were dumb enough to get caught, surely this only illustrated how smart the Indian foxes were. “There are gradations of smartness,” Vanak says.
Miss Cal and friends
He changed tactics, opting to bury and camouflage foothold traps. Unwary foxes snagged themselves. Vanak called the first one Miss Cal because he miscalculated her weight and the tranquilising drug meant to keep her down long enough to fix a GPS collar. After outfitting her with the tracking device, he followed her from afar as she raised two litters. Since then, he has trapped and studied 53 foxes.
Some unchaperoned pups were fearless, recounts Vanak. They boldly approached him as he sat observing them from a distance. When their mother showed up, her bark sent them scurrying for cover. She then changed dens immediately, perhaps to keep her young from becoming overly familiar with Vanak.
Despite their protectiveness, vixens don’t live in the same burrows as their kits. Instead, they hunker down nearby and visit the nursery den every evening at feeding time. Maybe this is their way of reducing their exposure to fleas by spending as little time as possible with the cubs.
The best contender for Aesop’s foxy role is the golden jackal, says Vanak. It is wily and extremely suspicious of anything that’s out of place in the environment. This trait posed a challenge to the researcher as he struggled to catch the animals.
The leghold traps he had successfully deployed for foxes didn’t work. As if to show they hadn’t been fooled, the jackals dug the snares up and left them exposed for Vanak to find the next morning. On a 1 to 10 ease-of-capture scale, jungle cats rank low, while these canids would probably score 10.
In 2016, Vanak met Aviv Abeljoum, a jackal trapper in Israel, who went to extraordinary lengths to allay the animals’ suspicion. First, he cleaned the devices thoroughly and dipped them in hot wax to remove the smell of metal. Then he filled a box with earth from the trap site. So no human odour contaminated them, he handled the wax-coated traps with gloves when burying them in the soil. At the location, he spread a plastic sheet on which to kneel, not because he needed a cushion but to make sure his sweat didn’t fall on the ground. This exaggerated degree of caution wasn’t enough. Even the bait had to be placed carefully.
The typical method was to throw food around the trap to lure the animal in. But Abeljoum said it was better to place it above ground on a nearby rock rather than attract the jackal’s attention to the snare itself. This way, it follows its nose to the bait, and as it runs away with it, springs the trap.
Following all these painstaking steps was no guarantee of success. One large jackal was a master of evasion. In the end, the animal didn’t get caught in the main trap but by a backup. Vanak named him Don after the Amitabh Bachchan movie because he was reminded of this dialogue: “ Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi, namumkin hai (It is not just difficult to capture Don, it is impossible).”
But even after they were trapped, Vanak faced challenges. Once caught, jackals become trap-shy. He couldn’t trap them again to change the batteries on their GPS collar.
No doubt this extraordinary suspicion helps jackals thrive in areas where people live, but they can never be too careful. Rarely abroad during the day, they go about their business only at night.
On one occasion, poultry farmers sprayed pesticide on carcasses to keep flies away and dumped them out in the open. An entire clan of jackals, including Don and two others that Vanak was monitoring, dined on this poisoned feast and died.
Since foxes and jackals are smart in differing ways, Vanak plans to test their problem-solving skills. There’s no doubt however that jackals are “super clever”. But Vanak declares his favourite animal is the Indian fox. “It’s like a fur sausage on four legs — cute, rather cat-like, and delicate.”
Why not jackals? “They stink,” he says. “Jackals have this horrible smell, like an entire zoo on four legs.”
Odour notwithstanding, it’s time to give the jackal its rightful place in Aesop’s Fables .
The author is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover