So tradition has it that on Easter Sunday, the Easter Bunny will come hopping through gardens hiding chocolate eggs for children to find and gobble up. Whatever you choose to believe regarding this overly-generous bunny, we’re going to discuss the real situation of the rabbits and hares that are found across South Africa, and why the numbers of the Riverine Rabbit, especially, are dwindling.
First, a little scientific info: rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae (lepus, in Latin, means ‘hare’). An apt name, considering how they leap about the place. Three genera of Leporidae are indigenous in South Africa: Bunolagus (Riverine Rabbits); Pronolagus (Natal Red Rock Hare, Jameson’s Red Rock Hare and Smith’s Red Rock Hare and Hewitt’s Red Rock Hare); and Lepus (Cape Hare, African Savannah Hare and Scrub Hare).
Ecologically speaking, the Pronolagus and Lepus genera are doing just fine and continuing breeding like, well… bunnies, so they’re okay. The Riverine Rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis), however, is not, with estimates of their population dwindling into the hundreds.
It’s hard to get a prettier rabbit than the Riverine Rabbit, with its distinctive white ‘eyeliner’ and black ‘matinee moustache’. That’s if you get to see one – they’re incredibly shy, mostly nocturnal and, as mentioned above, rare.
They’re about 50 cm in length, and weigh around 1.5 kg on average.
Where to Look
These li’l hoppers are found only in the Karoo region of South Africa. As their name suggests, they are typically associated with the seasonal river systems in the Nama Karoo, burrowing in the deep, silty soil found on the floodplains, and enjoying the tasty titbits that stay green for longer than the bush away from any water source.
However, the Rabbits living in the Succulent Karoo love to spend time on old lands and they do not, like their Nama Karoo counterparts, necessarily restrict their movements to the vegetation along the river courses.
They were long thought to be nocturnal, but by using camera traps to record rabbit activity patterns, the Endangered Wildlife Trust has shown that the rabbits are actually quite active in the early mornings and later afternoons as well. They are nonetheless very difficult to actually see as they simply sit very still and as they blend in so well, one can easily walk right past one sitting under a bush and not see it. They tend to be solitary, rather than hanging out in groups.
Why So Scarce?
One word – humans. The gross destruction of the habitat of the Riverine Rabbit, due to agricultural development, is the main reason for these creatures facing extinction. Ploughing of the deep alluvial soil for crops, soil erosion in these sensitive areas, dam construction, wood collection and bush clearing, and overgrazing add to the threat. And then there’s hunting.
And as if that is not enough, more recently, proposals to frack, and mine uranium in the Karoo pose very serious threats to not only the rabbits’ existence, but the future of the vast and beautiful Karoo as we know it today.
On top of that, Riverine Rabbits have a short lifespan of two to three years, and the female rabbit produces only an average of four young in her lifetime. In comparison, the Cape Hare produces one to three babies per litter, four times a year, during her lifespan (one to two years).
How to Help
The protection of Riverine Rabbits is a complex thing, mostly because they’re elusive and already so rare, making studying their habitats and movements extremely hard. Fieldworkers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drylands Conservation Programme, based in Loxton, are working tirelessly, hand-in-hand with landowners and provincial conservation authorities, to protect their habitat, in order to save these beautiful creatures from being wiped out completely.
So go on, forego some of those chocolate Easter eggs and donate the money to saving the Easter Bunny’s second-cousin-twice-removed-by-habitat.