Cape Nature Conservation
27 June 2002

The chances of survival for South Africa’s most endangered mammal, the riverine rabbit, looks even more desperate than has commonly been feared. The conservation status of this Karoo rabbit has, according to the latest IUCN 2002 Red Data List for Endangered Species, been raised from endangered to critically endangered.

That makes this leaf eater with its furry feet one of the rarest animals in the world. Unless drastic steps are taken to save the situation, there is a 50/50 chance that this species, with its unenviable status, may disappear from the face of the earth completely within the next decade.

This re-evaluation was done in March in Johannesburg at a workshop of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, a partner of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, during which the conservation status of 300 of Southern Africa’s mammal species was investigated. Ten Southern African mammal species are regarded as critically endangered. This includes the black rhinoceros, four kinds of mole, and two bat species. The populations of riverine rabbits and red bush squirrels are, however, the only Southern African mammal species that are in such extremely dire straits world wide.

This means that, according to all indications, there are no more than 250 adult riverine rabbits left, and that the population is showing a continued drop in numbers. According to these criteria there is also not a satellite population of more than 50 adults in existence. This estimate is very conservative measured against the estimate of 500 riverine rabbits world wide, which is generally accepted by conservationists who are actively involved in their protection.

Since 1999 and after several surveys, only 41 rabbits have been counted in the Western Cape, but hopefully more of their friends are hiding in the shrublands of the Northern Cape.

The survival of the riverine rabbit now depends on the co-operation among the conservation organizations that are involved with the National Riverine Rabbit Co-ordination Committee, landowners, and the general public. A conservation plan of Cape Nature Conservation and the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Services, which is funded by WWF SA, focuses on the identification of all the areas where the rabbit and its optimal habitat may be found. Appropriate management principles are also being laid down for these areas, and a comprehensive awareness campaign is part of the plan.

The riverine rabbit, an inhabitant of the Central Karoo, lives in the ganna bush of the seasonal riverbeds of the districts of Beaufort West, Loxton, Carnarvon, Calvinia, Sutherland, Victoria West and Fraserburg. Contrary to what is commonly believed about rabbits, riverine rabbits breed very slowly. This rabbit is often confused with the shrub hare, rock rabbits and the Cape hare that also live in the Central Karoo. The riverine rabbit, however, has distinctive long ears, a black-brown stripe on its lower jaw, and a dark fluffy tail, which is visible when it bounces away.

“It is important to us to gather as much genetic material as possible, so that research can be done on specific genetic populations, diseases and the general condition of riverine rabbits,” says Kleynhans.

The Wildlife Breeding and Research Centre in Johannesburg supports the project by transporting for free all possible fresh material that can be collected from riverine rabbits, and keeping it in their genetic database.

“For practical reasons it is not always possible to obtain bits of skin or blood from live rabbits, and we are dependent on the public who can supply or report any potential material,” explains Kleynhans. She therefore calls on anyone who comes across a dead riverine rabbit or some of its remains, even if it is only a small heap of bones, to contact her (044-279-1739) or Dr Vicky Ahlmann (053-381-3107), a German researcher in Loxton.

Riverine rabbits, like other rabbits and hares, are often run over on roads. They also easily become prey to traps that are indiscriminately laid. Stray dogs, hunters and the making of firewood along the riverbeds, which destroys the riverine rabbit’s natural habitat, threaten the survival of this small mammal.

“People who are aware of such offences must report it as soon as possible,” says Kleynhans. The riverine rabbit’s natural habitat does not lie protected within formal conservation areas like nature reserves, but on the huge sheep farms in the Karoo. That is why conservationists believe that the key to its survival lies in a network of conservancies supported by farmers.

“The survival of the riverine rabbit as a unique species truly lies in the hands of our farming community,” says Kleynhans. Conservancies are areas that are established through voluntary agreements among a number of landowners, most of whose farms border on each other, to manage their environment.

A network of conservancies for the riverine rabbit could create an extensive informal conservation area to protect remaining populations and potential habitat. As such a chain of neighbouring lands also protect ecosystems such as rivers, it could lead to an increase in other wildlife. The use of environmentally friendly farming methods is also encouraged, such as not sowing along the riverbeds, and using snares for problem animals selectively.

“Because the conservancy is a statutory body and the farmers contribute as an organized group, conservation interests and development can be handled more effectively,” Kleynhans believes. Thanks to this co-operation the expenses that must be incurred for essential conservation activities, can be shared.

Farmers in the Northern Cape will soon follow this example and establish successful conservancies. Landowners who want to get involved in the establishment of a riverine rabbit conservancy can contact Chrizette Kleynhans (CNC) at (044) 279 1739 or Leon Muller (NCNCS) at (027) 341-1779.

Written by:
Engela Duvenage
Cape Nature Conservation