Vetfaan stood staring at the jackal for a long time.
For several months now, something has been killing the occasional lamb and the not-so-infrequent chicken on his farm. He’s set several traps, scouted around with Vrede, and even guarded the flock in the huge kraal – but still the killings went on. Lambs, mostly, when the sheep were scattered across the barren veld of the Kalahari.
Kleinpiet suggested setting out poisoned bait, something that prompted a verbal volcano from Gertruida. The dead jackal would, in turn, poison the rest of the feeding chain – from the vultures, right through to the beetles feeding on the carcass. “You wipe out an entire eco-system by using poison, you idiot!” She apologised immediately, and then had to explain what an eco-system is. Kleinpiet hung his head in shame and ordered a round of Cactus as a peace-making gesture.
That’s why Vetfaan eventually built the box-trap. A sturdy crate; with the trapdoor triggered when the bait (a nice piece of biltong) was taken; was set up near the rocky outcrop he suspected housed the vermin. For two weeks, the jackal avoided the trap. For two weeks, Vetfaan checked the box twice a day, with no results. For two weeks, the jackal disappeared…
But now the trapdoor is closed and he can see the animal through the slats of the crate. Now it’s only a question of pointing his old Mauser at the jackal, pulling the trigger, and he’ll be free of the scourge that has been eating away at his sheep.
The jackal watches him as he walks around the trap, its frightened eyes following his every move. Vetfaan knows a lot about jackals – they usually have a mate somewhere. Unlike humans, jackals mate for life. Yet this one seemed to operate alone – the tracks around the dead sheep suggested that. Something must have happened to its partner – a hyena, a wild dog, even maybe one of the occasional lions that venture about in the Kalahari? Or old age, disease? Another farmer with a trap and a gun? Who knows?
He slots the round into the chamber of the antiquated gun. Killing a trapped animal isn’t easy. Something about it seems so cruel, so primal. I can kill you because you are trapped and I have a gun. Hooray, I am the victor! Big man with a rifle will kill the defenceless bundle of fur. Vetfaan swallows away the bitter taste in his mouth as he takes aim.
The jackal gives a last, defiant snarl.
Nature, it must be said, is often unpredictable. Take animal behaviour, for instance. You can read up all the books you want, and still not know exactly what an animal will do under certain circumstances. Books will tell you about mating and predating and gestation periods and aggressive patterns. Even so, books don’t know everything.
The jackal-in-the-trap must have realised this is the end of the road. The tunnel of white light awaits. The beetles are going to have a feast. It is, without doubt, the end…
So it simply lay down, waiting for the bullet. It even turned on its back – but maybe that was a sign of submission. Who knows?
That’s when Vetfaan saw the swollen teats. This was a lactating mother, for goodness sakes! Somewhere there is a lair, with several pups. A single mother trying to feed her offspring…
If he killed her, the pups would die. Game, set and match to the brave farmer protecting his herd… But – to let the pups die of hunger and thirst, alone in some hole somewhere? It just doesn’t seem right.
For some reason, Vetfaan is reminded of his friends in Boggel’s Place. Most of them are loners (well, Oudoom is married, but Mevrou cannot really count as a mate, can she?), and they all are doing their best to survive. They are just as defenceless as the trapped jackal – caught in the Kalahari, with nowhere to go. Maybe their cage is bigger, but still – they don’t fit in elsewhere.
Gertruida said so, once. We’re prisoners here. Yes, we argue occasionally, but we have built a trap for ourselves. Whenever I go to Upington or Calvinia, I realise how important it is to return to Rolbos. Here, we understand each other. We help one another. Outside-people don’t work like this. No, Rolbos is our trap and Boggel’s is the bait. I wouldn’t have it any other way, thank you.
“Yes, Mama,” Vetfaan tells the jackal, “the Kalahari is your trap and my sheep is the bait. It’s the way it is. I can’t change that by killing you.”
Vetfaan went back to town to fetch Vrede. If the jackal gave birth recently – it must have been in the two weeks while Vetfaan watched the trap – then the lair can’t be far away. Vrede found the baby jackals within an hour, barking happily when he poked his nose into the crack between two large rocks.
“Geez, Vetfaan, we missed you today. Gertruida gave such a nice lecture on threatened animals and how we must protect the environment. And Boggel told the most outrageous jokes!” Kleinpiet slaps Vetfaan’s shoulder and orders two beers.
Even in Rolbos, you can’t tell everybody everything. After all, this is a tough place, where survival means you have to make tough decisions sometimes. And there is an accepted norm to take into consideration, as well. Farmers kill jackals, for instance. No exceptions. Even if they feel bad about it, that’s the rule. And if you could wipe out a whole family of jackals, you’ve saved you and your neighbours a lot of sheep…
You can’t tell them about the small little baby jackals you loaded into your pickup. About the crate on the back. About the long trip into the arid desert, to where you know about the tiny fountain next to the rocky outcrop, where the rabbit-holes are. About the way you set the family free to be what God created them to be: jackals with the instinct for survival that served them so well over the aeons of time.
You don’t tell them those things. Not if you’re a farmer with a flock of sheep and a gun.