Rabbit Woes: Easter Icons Face Survival Struggles

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 17, 2003

Chocolate bunnies may be abundant this Easter season, but some real-life rabbit species around the world are becoming increasingly rare.

"We have lots of endangered rabbits," said Andrew Smith, a biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe and chair of a World Conservation Union working group dedicated to management and conservation of rabbits, pikas, and hares—a family also known as lagomorphs.

Spain: European Rabbit

In some parts of the world, declining rabbit populations have strained natural food chains. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), for example, is a staple in the Spanish lynx's diet. But a pox virus, myxomatosis, has raced through rabbit populations on the Iberian Peninsula, making them so rare that Spanish lynx (Lynx pardina) there are on the verge of extinction, scientists say.

United States: Pygmy Rabbit

Elsewhere, disappearing rabbits can signal declining health of grassland and sagebrush ecosystems. In the United States, a coalition of conservation groups is petitioning the U.S. government to list the palm-sized pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) as a threatened or endangered species throughout its range. The rabbit is already listed as endangered in the Columbia Basin of Washington state.

Conservation groups cite loss of sagebrush habitat to forage for cattle as the primary reason for the species' decline. They say the species depends on sagebrush for 99 percent of its winter diet. Sagebrush also provides the rabbits, which are among the smallest in the world, with cover from predators.

South Africa: Riverine Rabbits

Some rabbit species around the world are being squeezed out by known factors such as development and agricultural pressures. Others are so little known that their conservation status is uncertain.

Among them is the South African riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monitcularis) which lives in seasonal riverbeds. The species is distinguished by its long ears, a black-brown stripe on its lower jaw, and a dark fluffy tail. Unlike most rabbits, the riverine rabbit produces just one offspring per year and an estimated total of four offspring during its lifetime.

"There may be just a few hundred and none are in protected areas, all are on private land," said Smith. Conservationists are working with landowners to develop protection plans for the rabbit, which the conservationists say will also help protect South Africa's riverside ecosystems.

Japan: Amami Rabbit

Continued on Next Page >>


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