Diseases killing off rabbits are bringing rare eagles and the world’s most endangered cat to the brink of extinction, says a report from conservation groups published today. It also warns that a new GM virus under development in Australia could, if it spread to the Iberian Peninsula, have devastating consequences. Myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease, combined with habitat loss and over-hunting, have brought rabbit numbers in Spain and Portugal to as low as 5% of population estimates 50 years ago. The Iberian Lynx, whose diet consists of 80-100% rabbits, has seen its own numbers fall to little more than 100 adults, according to the latest official figures, partly due to rabbit decline. The Iberian Imperial Eagle, another rabbit specialist predator has declined to around 150 pairs. The report, "Reversing Rabbit Decline", calls for the rabbit to be reclassified under the IUCN Red List of threatened species, given that it is currently classified as Least Concern and this does not adequately reflect its recent and rapid decline in Spain and Portugal. "Whereas the rabbit is seen as a pest in countries where it has been introduced, it is the keystone of the Mediterranean ecosystem in Spain and Portugal," said Dan Ward, a conservation consultant for SOS Lynx, and author of the study. "At least 39 predator species rely partly or exclusively on the rabbit, and rabbits are also important for many invertebrate and plant species." The report also says that although some rabbit conservation projects are underway – including habitat improvement – they are not widespread or co-ordinated enough, and lack sufficient political support and long term funding. In addition, changes are needed in agricultural (including EU) policies to revert from modern intensive farming back to less intensive mixed farming that benefits rabbits. Rabbit expert Andrew Smith, Chairman of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) Lagomorph Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN said it was now vital to recover rabbit populations in Spain and Portugal. "For many years our worry with European rabbits was overpopulation in areas where they had been introduced, such as Australia. This report presents a dire warning that natural populations of the rabbit are seriously in jeopardy and that the loss of rabbits would be devastating to the ecosystem on the Iberian peninsula." Urs Breitenmoser (Co-chair of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group) added "the Iberian Lynx is the undisputed flagship of conservation on the southern Iberian Peninsula. However, the ultimate keystone species of the ecosystem is the humble rabbit. Neither the Iberian Lynx nor the Imperial Eagle will survive the next few decades if rabbit decline continues. I hope that this report will push this eminent but neglected species into the limelight."
For further information contact:
• Dan Ward (Report author) – 00 41 31 332 5607
• Dr. Andrew Smith (IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group) – 00 1 480 965 4024
• Eduardo Gonçalves (SOS Lynx) 00 351 965 765 965
Notes to Editor:
1. The report is based upon interviews with recognised experts, and a review of the available literature.
2. Funding for the report was provided by Pelicano SA, a Portuguese real estate developer that is Founding Global Partner of One Planet Living, a joint WWF-BioRegional initiative to promote sustainable development and nature conservation.
3. SOS Lynx is a conservation charity based in Portugal campaigning to prevent the extinction of the Iberian Lynx. For further reports and more information see www.soslynx.org
4. The World Conservation Union (IUCN), is the world’s largest and most important conservation network. The Union brings together 82 States, 111 government agencies, more than 800 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries. The IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group is responsible for the observation of the status and the conservation needs of the 36 species of felines, see: www.catsg.org . The IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group is responsible for the conservation and management of approximately 91 species of pikas, rabbits and hares, see:http://www.ualberta.ca/~dhik/lsg/
5. Ecologistas en Acción – Andalucía is a federation of ecological groups in Andalucia, Spain that works to conserve the natural environment, and promotes peace and solidarity. See: www.ecologistasenaccion.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=10
Strength in numbers
The creatures live in the thick underbrush
among the oak forests native to the Central Valley. But over the past 40
years, commercial and agricultural development took 90 percent of the
rabbits' habitat away, and others are thought to have died in the 1997
flood. The rabbits were placed on the endangered species list in 2000.
Endangered Rabbits Returned to Wild
By JULIANA BARBASSA
VERNALIS, Calif. -- A canvas sack was rolled back to reveal a tiny, quivering rabbit that blinked twice in the daylight, then bolted into a tangle of blackberry bushes. "It's like being plunked down in a big city you've never seen before," said wildlife biologist Laurissa Hamilton as she released the riparian brush rabbit into dense vegetation alongside the San Joaquin River. The one-pound animal was one of seven released Friday on the privately owned Faith Ranch as part of a five year, $2.6 million effort to restore one of California's most endangered mammals. By the end of next week, researchers will have released 30 animals _ enough to start a population experts hope will become self-sustaining and help the rabbit hop off federal and state endangered species lists. The animal, smaller than the dwarf rabbits commonly kept as pets, once thrived along the Central Valley's meandering rivers, but its population dwindled as the region was plowed and paved to accommodate farms and cities. Only about 10 percent of the original riparian vegetation remains, Hamilton said. Without the thick growth, the rabbit is exposed to predators _ raccoons, coyotes and birds of prey. When the species was listed as endangered five years ago, biologists were only aware of one small population living in a state park, which was nearly wiped out by a flood in 1997. Since then, a partnership of academic researchers, private landowners and government agencies have established a rabbit community a few miles down river. They hope animals just released will form the second of three strong populations needed to take the animal off the protected species list. "Tremendous strides have been made in a short time, and it's looking very promising," said program coordinator Patrick Kelly. "This is going to be one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act." The bunnies' reproductive habits certainly helped. Half a dozen rabbits put in a protected, one-acre enclosure can become a thriving community a year later with 65 to 80 animals, Hamilton said. But another key to the success was the cooperation of private landowners, experts said. The parents of the animals released this week were found on a large farm that will soon be surrounded by suburban development. The owner helped researchers capture the animals, which were then taken to pens near Lodi for reproduction. Faith Ranch, the 2,000-acre property that welcomed the rabbits into its stands of century-old oaks, cottonwoods and lush undergrowth, belongs to the wine-making Gallo family. The property became part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge when the Gallo family entered into a conservation easement agreement that allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage some areas to support wildlife. "Our family was thrilled about the idea of helping out something that's going extinct," Tom Gallo said. The preservation of rabbit habitat could bode well for other threatened species. In June, another endangered riparian animal, a chatty songbird called the least Bell's vireo, was spotted in the area after a 60-year absence.
On the Net:
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex: http://www.fws.gov/sanluis/refuges.htm
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/
Between September 26 and 30 2005, Cape Nature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Working Group organised a comprehensive and very successful Riverine Rabbit survey, carried out by 25 dedicated conservationists of which 23 were on foot and two were on horseback. 15 Riverine Rabbits were counted in the central Kleinkaroo between Touwsrivier and Montagu and in the Ceres Karoo. In both regions the occurrence of this critically endangered mammal has only recently been discovered and this survey now confirms their presence!
These surveys may, at the first glance, look like a fun and adventurous hike through the back roads of the Karoo, but they are actually very costly and demanding exercises. During the past seven years comprehensive field surveys have been conducted throughout the Karoo in cooperation with the Northern and Western Cape’s provincial conservation authorities (partly funded by WWF-SA) and hundreds of kilometres of dense riverine areas in the central and upper Karoo region have been investigated and rummaged through with teams of 10 to 20 people and horses to locate and count one of southern Africa’s most endangered mammals, the Riverine Rabbit Bunolagus monticularis.
Despite the exciting news confirming their presence in two new areas, Riverine Rabbits are still largely a poorly known species. The Riverine Rabbit was first discovered in 1901 and even then was described as “completely unique and unlike any other species so far described” (Thomas, 1093). It was always assumed that its distribution range is limited to the areas more or less surrounding the Karoo towns of Sutherland, Calvinia, Fraserburg, Beaufort West, Victoria West, Carnarvon and Williston (mainly Nama Karoo ecoregion). The new discoveries now raise many questions: has the species successfully hidden itself for more than 100 years in other parts of the Karoo such as the Succulent Karoo in the Ceres, Montagu and Worcester Districts? Has the Riverine Rabbit always occurred there and people believed it is just another hare? Why are daily sightings of the species much higher in this part of the Karoo than in the formally known distribution range? More research is required to answer these and other questions to better understand this mysterious and scarce creature and to assist us to implement more effective conservation measures.
The Riverine Rabbits is a habitat specialist that occupies a very restricted and specialised niche: the discontinuous and dense vegetation on soft and nutrient-rich alluvial soils associated with the seasonal rivers of the Karoo. Riverine Rabbits therefore function as a biological indicator for the river zones in the Karoo. In the arid Karoo, riparian zones are of enormous economical value for commercial farmers which they use for cultivation. In addition the dense riverine vegetation plays an important role as a buffer zone for grazing livestock during drought periods. The extinction of Riverine Rabbits in many areas of its former distribution range in the Northern and Western Cape is therefore indicative of the severe destruction, fragmentation and loss of this habitat.
Both the Succulent and Nama Karoo biomes are under threat from grazing, agriculture and mining. The smaller Succulent Karoo is known to boast one of the highest levels of plant endemism and has been declared one of the three conservation hotspots in South Africa that also attracts the attention of international conservation initiatives. Both areas in which the occurrence of the Riverine Rabbit has recently been confirmed belong to the geographic priority areas of SKEP (the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme) placing another critically endangered, endemic species on the Succulent Karoo’s list of threatened species.
Fortunately, all the farms in the Klein- and Ceres Karoo region where Riverine Rabbits have recently been discovered are owned by landowners who are committed to conserving their land for future generations and subscribe to the principles of sustainable biodiversity conservation on their properties. In many parts of the Karoo, landowners regard themselves as land stewards and manage their natural resources wisely. The network of conservancies and protected areas in this area is expanding with the aim of conserving Karoo biodiversity, and if this continues, the fate of the Riverine Rabbit in perhaps even more currently undiscovered areas will be secure – at least for now.
Please report any potential sightings to the Riverine Rabbit Working Group: Cell: 082 446 548.
THE RRWG IS PROUDLY SUPPORTED BY:
Agri-Expo, The Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Charitable Foundation, the Mazda Wildlife Fund, Rand Merchant Bank, The Green Trust, WWF-SA, Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations and the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA.
Contact: Dr Vicky Ahlmann (DVM)
Riverine Rabbit Working Group Manager
P.O. Box 172
Tel/Fax: +27(0)53 - 381 3107
Issued by: Yolan Friedmann
Conservation Manager: Endangered Wildlife Trust
Summary and Recommendations from a Workshop Held in Grand Teton National Park – September 23-24, 2005
By Joel Berger, Kim Murray Berger, Peter F. Brussard, Robert Gibson, Janet Rachlow, and Andrew Smith
Within Wyoming are found eight members of the rabbit family known as lagomorphs. Three -- snowshoe hares, pikas, and white-tailed jack rabbits -- are listed among the fauna of Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). Between 1970 and 2005, only three sightings of live white-tailed jackrabbits in Jackson Hole have been substantiated (details below) despite decades of field studies on numerous other species. Historic observations beginning with Olaus Murie in 1928 (handwritten field notes, Teton Science School archives, Kelly, WY) and followed by professional mammalogists, James Findley and Norm Negus (Pers. Comm.), confirm that these hares once existed in GTNP. The fact that less than half a dozen observations in 35 years have been detected in GTNP and in other regions of Jackson Hole raises a red flag about the health of the sage-steppe ecosystem.
With this information in mind, the Wildlife Conservation Society approached the National Park Service and the University of Wyoming about the possibility of holding a 1-day workshop at their joint research station, the AMK Ranch; they graciously agreed to host the meeting. Sixteen local biologists and four outside research experts (Dr. Peter Brussard, Dr. Robert Gibson, Dr. Janet Rachlow, Dr. Andrew Smith) including the Chair of the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Lagomorph Specialist Group (Smith) participated in the workshop.