The black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) is the smallest of three jackal species and is only found in Africa. Evolutionary it is believed to be the oldest canid in the genus Canis, which also includes domestic dogs, wolves and coyotes, with fossils dating back a couple of million years. The black-backed jackals reaches a shoulder height of 30-48 cm (12-19 in) and can weigh up to 13.8 kg (30 lb). Individuals in eastern Africa tend to be larger than the southern African ones. Coloration is reddish-brown to tan. The back is covered in intermixed black and silver hair with a sharp black line separating the back from the redder flanks. The tail has a black tip. It can be confused with the larger side-striped jackal (Canis adustus) which also has a line down the sides separating back and flanks. Side-striped jackals are a lot more grey in overall appearance, the stripe on their side is black with a white line above and the tail is black with a white tip. The two species are often found in different habitats, as black-backed jackals prefer open grasslands and savannah whereas side-striped jackals are more shy and prefer woodlands and forests.
The black-backed jackal is an omnivore and will feed on everything from insects and other arthropods to small mammals and antelopes. They also readily feed on carrion as well as fruits and berries. Black-backed jackals are known to be very aggressive, much more so than their relatives, and will often harass larger animals, especially if they are injured. They are known to attack and kill animals up to the size of adult Thomson’s gazelle, and even adult impala has been recorded as prey. They are quite bold and will often approach kills of larger carnivores, such as lions and hyena, to steal pieces of meat. They are mostly nocturnal, but their opportunistic behavior often have them active throughout the day searching for food except during the hottest hours.
Black-backed jackals live in dens which are often dug by other animals although they do sometimes dig themselves. They either live alone, in pairs or in small related packs. Black-backed jackals are monogamous and do only mate with one partner. They are territorial and during mating season they frequently chase off same-sex individuals from their territory. Three to six pups are born after a gestation period of 60 days. The pups are born in winter or in summer depending on the prey species they target. In summer they target an increased population of certain rodent species, such as the vlei rat, and in winter they target the antelope calving season. When present, older offspring will help take care of their younger siblings. Pups stay hidden in the den for three weeks with their mother keeping a close guard as the father and older sibling provide food. After six to eight months they gain independence. Dominant pups reach independence earlier than others.
There are two recognized subspecies of black-backed jackal. The southern African subspecies (C. m. mesomelas) and the larger East African subspecies (C. m. schmidti). The black-backed jackal has been seen as a pest by farmers ever since colonization of South Africa because they often kill livestock and carry rabies. Attempts were made to eradicate them, but the species is so succesful and adaptable that any attempt generally failed. The species is to this day still widespread and fairly common within its range and it is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List.