Rabbit Woes: Easter Icons Face Survival Struggles

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In Japan, the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) is known to live on two islands covered in old growth forests. It was overhunted in the 19th century for meat and medicinal purposes and by 1900 its numbers had been significantly reduced. Today, about 3,000 rabbits are believed to exist on the islands but they are increasingly threatened with extinction due to development pressure.

"Last I heard local conservation bodies were trying to stop the development of a large golf course on one of these small Amami Islands," said Bell. Such development fragments the landscape, making it difficult for the species to survive.

According to Smith, on word that conservation biologists were pushing protective action for the rabbit, local people took action to push the rabbits over the brink of extinction. "They put in mongoose to eat the rabbits, they don't want biologists to save the forests," he said.

Mexico: Volcano Rabbit

Another isolated rabbit facing development pressure is the volcano rabbit (Romerolagus diazi), which is restricted to a pine forest habitat marked by unique clumps of grass found on a mountaintop outside of Mexico City. The city is encroaching on this habitat, although conservations are working hard to preserve it and the species, according to scientists.

Then there are rabbits that may be endangered, but have no recognized protection. One of these is a cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus robustus) that is found only in the Davis Mountains of Texas in the area between Guadalupe and Big Bend national parks. When Ruedas tried to get it listed as endangered in Texas, he was told listing would make the situation for the rabbit worse. "Folks would shoot it instead of letting other folks know it is on their property," Ruedas said the officials told him.

South America: Brazilian Rabbit

Situations such as this lead Ruedas to believe that many more species than officially recognized are endangered. He also believes that several species of rabbits wait to be discovered. As an example, he points to South America where most rabbits are classified as the species Sylvilagus brasiliensis.

"That cannot be, that is the bottom line," he said. "I've looked at [forms] of brasiliensis and they are so distinct, not even close."

To remedy the situation, Ruedas suggests that more attention needs to be paid to documenting the number of rabbit species in the world and performing long term studies on populations to determine whether or not certain rabbit populations are naturally low or truly in a decline.

"The words endangered and rabbit don't come easily together in people's minds because they have such a reputation as being pests in people's minds," said Bell. "In reality a number of rabbit species are endangered. It is important to recognize that."

Australia: European Pest

Meanwhile, Australians wrestle with an overabundance of rabbits. English landowners introduced the European rabbit to the continent in 1859, seeking game animals for sport hunting. With no natural predators in their new homeland, European rabbit populations soon spiraled out of control in Australia.

Introduced diseases and other measures have reduced the population by at least 50 percent from its historic highs. But the rabbits still cost the country millions of dollars in lost farmland revenues each year, according to Brian Cooke, who studied the Australian rabbit population for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's federal science agency, and is now a researcher at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands

"It is hard to imagine that a pest Australians have been trying to eliminate could ever be thought of as endangered," said Cooke.

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