LSG Reports to the SSC
Species is the newsletter of the Species Survival Commission of IUCN. The Lagomorph Specialist Group regularly reports its activities in this publication. Species publications #33-45 are available below from the SSC website. Online Species editions #34, 42 and 44 contain LSG Reports.
The popular image of lagomorphs is that they are both commonly abundant and highly fecund. Indeed, we often describe organisms with high reproductive rates as “breeding like rabbits.” Additionally, rabbits and hares are heavily hunted for food or sport in many ecosystems throughout the world, lending credence to the idea that they can continue to sustain a high harvest. One species, the European Rabbit, has even proved to be one of the world’s most successful colonizers, wreaking havoc in many of the ecosystems in which it has been introduced (particularly in Australia and on oceanic islands). All of these images support the notion that rabbits and hares (and lagomorphs in general) are unlikely candidates for conservation concern. Rather, we might expect that the management of lagomorphs should focus on sustainable yield or control issues. These are genuine and important management concerns, and the Lagomorph Specialist Group (LSG) has dedicated scientists who address these issues.
The key achievement of the LSG, however, is represented in its work on those lagomorphs who, contrary to common opinion, are among the most endangered vertebrates on earth. The membership of the LSG includes leading scientific specialists on rare and endangered lagomorphs. “Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” (1990) -- edited by Joseph Chapman (former LSG Chair) and John Flux -- incorporated not only the most comprehensive treatment on the biology of lagomorphs, but constituted the first global synthesis on the status of the lagomorphs. And the results were chilling. We now consider almost one-quarter of all rabbit and hare species, and about one-fifth of pika species, to be globally threatened using IUCN/SSC quantitative criteria. Additionally, many isolated subspecies of otherwise common species are globally threatened. Working though its distributed membership, the LSG has brought attention to these forms, conducted surveys and analyses on their status, and initiated conservation action to maintain the biodiversity of lagomorphs worldwide.
I would like to highlight some recent examples of the
accomplishments of the hard-working volunteers in the LSG. A “Riverine Rabbit
Project” has just been launched to address causes of endangerment of this form
and to put into action conservation interventions – the first such comprehensive
effort on behalf of this South African species. The endangered Hispid Hare of
India and Nepal is the focus of an integrated habitat management protocol
sponsored by an LSG member. Several LSG members have visited Hainan Island, PRC,
and made recommendations for the management of the vulnerable Hainan Hare, a
species subject to widespread harvest and habitat destruction. A Japanese team
LSG members are the focal point for biological surveys and conservation
recommendations for the endangered Amami Rabbit in southern Japan. Recently a
LSG member described a new species of rabbit, Sylvilagus robustus, and
immediately classified it as endangered. Some of the leading genetic
laboratories worldwide working on lagomorphs are directed by members of the LSG,
and one of these was chosen recently to determine the systematic status of an
entirely new form of lagomorph discovered in southeast Asia. LSG members have
surveyed the highlands of central Asia and found new species of pikas, and
gathered data to help determine the status of
These stories are largely of projects in progress – as our conservation work is never done. The LSG feels that it has become stronger through time. Many members have assisted in group communication, and members from different countries are now sharing their expertise with others. The future for the LSG will hopefully see a strengthening of these ties, and of the focus for conservation that we can bring to a generally mis-understood group of mammals – the lagomorphs.
This report covers two of our group’s target species found in China and Japan. LSG members Andrew Smith and Robert Hoffmann just returned from Hainan Island in southern China, occupied by the endemic Hainan Hare (Lepus hainanus). An earlier report in Species 25:61-62 (1995) by Lazell et al. found that the hare existed primarily in two nature reserves in southwestern Hainan, and was exploited for food throughout the island. The form was listed as “Vulnerable” (criteria A1a,c and B2a,c) in The 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Smith visited the Da Tien Nature Preserve, found by Lazell et al. to be the strongest population on the island and reports that the hare has increased in numbers, largely due to concomitant effects of habitat management for Eld’s deer (Cervus eldi hainanus) there. Reserve manager Li San Yuan reported that the Hainan Hare population was still low at the second reserve, Bang Xi. Further, he reported that harvesting of the hare for food had largely been curtailed because of increased publicity that it has been listed as a Category II protected species by the Chinese government. One afternoon spent in Haikou’s primary animal market failed to produce any specimens of the Hainan Hare. However, Hoffmann, traveling in north-east Hainan noted Hainan Hares being sold by the roadside – a good and bad sign. Bad in that it indicates harvesting of wild hares has not totally been arrested, and good because it shows that the hare still may range throughout the island.
Conservation research projects on the Amami rabbit
This report is submitted by four members of the Lagomorph
Specialist Group, representing three countries: Ken Sugimura, Fumio Yamada,
Fernando Cervantes, and Franz
The Amami rabbit, one of the most primitive lagomorph species in the world, is found only on Amami Island (710 km2) and Tokuno Island (250 km2) which belong to the Ryukyu Island chain in the most southern part of Japan. These Islands have many indigenous plants and animals compared with mainland Japan and China. The rabbit was designated as a special symbol of natural heritage by the Japanese government in 1921 and 1963 and is classified as endangered by the IUCN. It has been reported that the original habitat, a landscape that includes mature forests or woods, has been changed by extensive clear-cutting and construction of many forest roads. In addition, the introduced mongoose has established feral populations which have expanded in distribution area and population numbers.
Therefore Ken Sugimura and Fumio Yamada started a series of research projects on the population size, distribution, demographic properties and factors influencing the population decline of the Amami Rabbit in order to develop a conservation program for its survival. The results of this research indicated that the rabbit population has been declining gradually for the last 20 years due most probably to extensive clear-cutting of its forest habitat and increases in the mongoose population. Some local populations are completely isolated from the others, and these seem to be on the verge of extinction.
In 1997 Sugimura and Yamada (Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan), received a grant from the STA (Science and Technology Agency) of the Japanese government to invite two scientists from abroad to collaborate and exchange information and knowledge in order to improve research skills, designs and ideas for consevation of the Amami Rabbit. Two specialists from the Lagomorph Specialist Group were invited: Fernando Cervantes (Instituto de Biologia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico) as a specialist of conservation and biology about the Mexican endangered leporids and Franz Suchentrunk (Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, Veterinary University of Vienna in Austria) as a specialist of population genetics of leporids. Cervantes stayed for three weeks and Suchentrunk for two weeks in Japan. They gave lectures to scientists, naturalists and other people on Amami Island, in Tsukuba and Kyoto. Their visit and activities on the Amami Islands were reported in some local newspapers and on the TV news.
Cervantes interacted closely with the research programs of Yamada and Sugimura. The purpose of this initial stay was to become involved in their program, determine the uniqueness of extant research hypotheses, approaches and especially the site conditions. Cervantes commented on his experiences in Japan as follows: "My colleagues are experienced researchers in leporid biology, and they are conducting research under experimental conditions about which my laboratory is interested in learning. The conservation problems they are successfully approaching are similar to those we face in Mexico with our wildlife. We, therefore, would like to collaborate with them to gain knowledge and experience on the subject."
Suchentrunk’s collaboration with Yamada and Sugimura was particularly worthwhile in the discussion of issues concerning the genetic diversity contained in Amami rabbits from diverse parts of its habitat. This determination could be achieved by sequencing the mitochondrial displacement loop based on PCR-amplified mtDNA from fur samples with emphasis to include specimens from the two islands. Suchentrunk and his colleagues are currently screening some 150-200 mountain hares from various parts of Europe for allelic variation at some 40 enzyme loci. For this kind of study, however, frozen organ tissue (kidney, liver, spleen, and heart) are needed. The advantage of this kind of molecular analysis is that it allows tracing of gene-pool variability at many loci and of fairly many individuals. Such data will give a good indication of cross gene-pool variability. Using these techniques it will be possible to obtain an estimate of individual and population-specific heterozygosity, of gene flow among populations and of erosion of genetic diversity possibly occurring in isolated populations of the Amami rabbit.
Not only scientists but also local people have been deeply concerned with the status and scientific results of the Amami Rabbit. Genetic and behavioral studies are certainly necessary for the basic understanding of the population dynamics and preservation of the species. Then, combined with previous findings on the distribution and abundance and the techniques of ecological engineering, collaboration of scientists with the local people and the government is required. Otherwise, coexistence of conservation for the rabbit and sustainable development of the human societies on the two islands could never be achieved.
The Lagomorph Specialist Group (LSG) met in September 1997 in conjunction with the Seventh International Theriological Congress in Acapulco, Mexico. Approximately half of the LSG was present, and other members sent in reports in their area of expertise. The meeting was primarily devoted to discussions of how the group should function to be most efficient at setting a course for active conservation and management of the world's lagomorphs. There was an open discussion on group membership, and several suggestions were made of persons and areas that could give the group more complete coverage. These suggestions will be incorporated in the reformation of the LSG for the current triennium. Group communications played a central role in our discussions. The Lagomorph Newsletter, which previously carried news and information about the LSG and lagomorph biology and conservation in general, has been inactive for several years because of the high expense of production and mailing compared with the LSG's spartan budget. Now, thanks to the efforts of David Hik, this function is being performed through the LSG Home Page on the world wide web. The site address is http:// www.ualberta.ca/~dhik/lsg/. The site can also be accessed via the Species Survival Commission web site. The LSG Home Page will be updated frequently and will contain listings of all LSG members and their coordinates, activities of the LSG, reports on specific conservation and management issues concerning lagomorphs, and "hot links" to other informative lagomorph web sites.
New group member Luis Ruedas will be setting up an e-mail list-server to enhance intra-group communication. Alejandro Velazquez will assist with the coordination of an annual "electronic meeting" of the LSG, so that we can learn of and discuss each other's activities. We believe that this activity will greatly enhance the cohesion of our group and serve as a model for other specialist groups.
The two most important collective activities of the LSG in the future will involve data management and red-listing. Andrew Smith gave a presentation on the Species Data Management System (SMS) - the SSC's connection to the broader BCIS (Biodiversity Conservation Information System). The group discussed experiences with the new quantitative criteria for listing threatened species used for the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Some members expressed that there should be a way to designate degrees of certainty along with each listing. How we communicate our expertise to audiences outside the group, whether they be funding agencies, governmental bodies, non-government agencies or the general public, is an increasing concern to LSG members. To this end, Maria Sadowski of the SSC led the group through a communications workshop.
We discussed various approaches with reference to specific issues in lagomorph conservation, and highlighted ways to make lagomorphs - not normally considered as a charismatic species - important instruments for conservation of ecosystems. In this regard, a giant step forward was made for the conservation of the many forms of threatened lagomorphs in Mexico with the presentation to the LSG by AMCELA (Mexican Association for the Study and Conservation of Lagomorphs) of a comprehensive portfolio of projects. The portfolio will be used to highlight and attract funding for these targeted activities. The meeting concluded with a review of significant conservation and management issues of select lagomorph species - ranging from those areas where rabbits are too abundant (Australia) to the large number of threatened lagomorphs which comprise some of the most endangered forms of mammal on earth.
The Lagomorph Specialist Group, Andrew Smith
The Lagomorph Specialist Group (LSG) is responsible for a relatively restricted number of taxa (80) dispersed throughout the world, and the LSG's composition reflects the priorities for establishment of conservation and management activities as outlined in the Lago morph Action Plan. As such, most activities are coordinated through the Chair, and there are only rare opportunities for the LSG to function as a group. Our only regularly scheduled meeting is at the every-four-year International Theriological Congress (ITC), and none were held during this triennium. Further, the LSG has no core funding and has had difficulty attracting such funding. Lack of such funding has inhibited communication – the LSG Newsletter used to fulfill this function, but there are no funds for its production. These are the down-sides of an all-volunteer, highly dispersed group.
The LSG has plans to address each of these issues to integrate more completely, communicate, and execute its Action Plan and activities. First, we are in the process of establishing a home page on the WWW, and we hope to sell advertising space on the site. This action will increase communication, both within and outside our Group. The funds generated will represent the first core funding the LSG has had, opening doors for more comprehensive conservation planning and activities. Further, establishment of the BCIS will allow the LSG to communicate internally, and with other Specialist Groups and BCIS consortium partners, thus greatly enhancing the effectiveness of our conservation activities. A high priority for the LSG is to develop means to work with other Specialist Groups in target localities – both those with similar taxonomic interests, such as other small mammal Groups, and all Groups in an area where the primary interest is biodiversity and its ramifications. The LSG is sched uled to meet at ITC-7 in Mexico (October, 1997); at this time we will develop fully a working plan for the Group that will more completely integrate Group members, activities, and funding initiatives.
Although the above plans should greatly enhance the effectiveness of the LSG, over the past triennium the Group participated in significant conservation activities. The most central activity was the quantitative review of all Lagomorph taxa for inclusion in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. We were able to evaluate nearly all species, 20% of which were assigned to threatened categories. We determined that an additional 8% contained subspecies that could be assigned to threatened categories. The classification process clearly identified those species most deserving of conservation action – thus serving as an update to the Action Plan, as well as to the gaps in our knowledge, on which we should concentrate our activities in the future. The majority of the activities of the LSG concentrated on identified threatened Lagomorph species. The Chair filed an intervention with the Ministry of Japan concerning the Amami Island rabbit, and the Ministry generously responded by funding a comprehensive study of the conservation status of this form. LSG member Ken Sugimura spearheaded this effort and developed verifiable, quantitative census techniques for the rabbit and its habitat. He and his team thoroughly determined the status of the Amami Island rabbit (total population size = 3,000) and outlined conservation measures needed to preserve the form.
Mexico is home to the highest number of endangered leporids in the world, thus the LSG has paid special attention to this area. In January 1996, the LSG hosted the International Workshop on Mexican Endangered Lagomorphs which was generously sponsored by the Peter Scott IUCN/SSC Action Plan Fund, Wildlife Preservation Trust International, St. Louis Zoo, AMCELA, CBSG, CONABIO, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, and Universidad Autonama Metroplitana- Unidad Iztapaloca. The Workshop was highly successful, and identified conservation priorties for the Lagomorphs of Mexico, concentrating on the volcano rabbit (or zacatuche), a form that was recommended to become the conservation symbol of Mexico. The proceedings of this Workshop are in press; a summary of the Mexican situation appears in Species 24.
The Action Plan identified the Hainan hare as a species of special concern because of the potential for endangerment due to over harvesting and habitat destruction, although lackof data dictated that its population status be listed as Insufficiently Known. A team led by LSG member Skip Lazell surveyed this population and determined that its Red List Status was Vulnerable. This activity, funded by the Peter Scott IUCN/SSC Action Plan Fund and The Conservation Agency, is highlighted in Species 25.
There are many threatened lagomorphs in Asia, and during the triennium LSG member Nikolai Formozov surveyed several of these. His report on the little pika (from work funded by the Peter Scott IUCN/SSC Action Plan Fund) can be found in Species 23. This conservation activity placed first in the Natural Environments Project category of the Ford European Conservation Awards. Formozov also has conducted significant surveys throughout China and Mongolia, discovering new pika species, unraveling systematic problems of threatened forms, and gathering status data on those species thought most to be at risk (funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation).
In July 1996, the LSG also co-sponsored the XIIth Lagomorph Workshop in France which was attended by many LSG members. The above paragraphs give the flavor of LSG activities during the triennium, although they by no means capture all of the Group's activities.
The Lagomorph Specialist Group, James Lazell, Wenhau Lu, Wei Xia, Shan Yuan Li and Andrew Smith
Status of the Hainan Hare
Hainan Dao, People's Republic of China, is the largest island in the South China Sea and supports a wide variety of endemic flora and fauna. Of 76 species of native mammals, 32 species or subspecies are endemic. The Hainan hare (Lepus hainanus) is one of these forms. The type specimen of the Hainan hare was described in 1870 by Robert Swinhoe, based on a specimen given him from a citizen of Haikou, the principal city of Hainan. Swinhoe compared this new species to both L. sinensis of inland China (to the north), and L. peguensis of southeast Asia (to the west). The Hainan hare has been considered a subspecies of L. yreguensis in some systematic treatments, but current evidence indicates that it is an independent species. L. hainanus is smaller than either of these other two species, said not to exceed 400 mm in total length or 2 km in mass. It is a basically brown hare with a pallid muzzle and a clear light ring around its eyes. The hare's most distinctive feature is a peculiar Y-shaped groove in its incisor tooth. The Hainan hare is a species of dry, open country in coastal lowlands, whereas L. sinensis is a woodland form and L. peguensis is said to be a mountain form and most frequently found above the tree line. The Hainan hare was formerly widespread and abundant in the coastal lowlands.
The Hainan hare is valued for its meat, and to some extent its skin. No medicinal properties are attributed to it, and it supplies no body parts valued as artifacts or in manufacture. However, it is said to be tame and easy to kill, perhaps because of the rarity of native carnivores on the island. Overharvesting of Hainan hares, leading to local extirpations (notably in the areas around Haikou and in Zhan County), was identified as early as 1983.
Hainan Island became a full province and China's largest Special Economic Zone in 1984. With this designation, it has been the scene of much investment and rapid economic growth, which has been accompanied by very rapid urban expansion and concomitant habitat destruction throughout the island, including Hainan hare habitat.
The Lagomorph Action Plan identified the Hainan hare as a species of special concern because of the potential for endangerment due to overharvesting and habitat destruction. The species was listed as "Insufficiently Known" in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. The Hainan hare received legal protection at second class level in 1988, in the People's Republic of China. In 1991, this species received protection at the first class level in Hainan Province. Fines under this legislation potentially run 500-10,000 Yuan ($63-$1,250) for killing these hares, but the laws are not enforced and carcasses can be bought in the open market. The Hainan government also has resolved that the province's rapid growth should be regulated so as to safeguard the environment, and to this end has established 34 nature reserves. However, a recent survey of these by an independent China Biodiversity Working Group found that most reserves supported ranching or petting-zoo operations rather than wild animal or natural habitat conservation. In July and August 1995, with support from the IUCN/SSC Peter Scott Action Plan Fund and The Conservation Agency, we set out to determine the current status of the Hainan hare. Of the seven areas of former abundance identified in the accompanying map, hares are currently only found in two localities: Bang Xi, Bai Sha County; and Da Tien, Dong Fong County. In addition, one of us (JL) found hares present at Deng Xia Kong Mangrove Protection Area (see map) in 1983 and 1986, but found no evidence of their occupancy there in 1995. Massive development of the coastal lowlands since 1984, including construction to the edge of the mangrove swamp at Deng Xai Kong, has undoubtedly produced major declines in the hare population. In summary, the Hainan hare has been extirpated from much of its former range, most likely due to habitat destruction.
For 11 days we surveyed the hare populations at Bang Xi and Da Tien Nature Reserves. Each of these sites are deer ranches (for Cervus eldi hainanus) that provide a measure of incidental protection for the hare. We used three census methods that are standard for the determination of hare populations: spot-lighting at night; scat pellet counts; and pellet accumulation. The latter technique yields a hare-night per hectare site utilization figure. At Da Tien, four replications of the first two methods yielded closely comparable results of 16.1 + 0.75 hares per square kilometer in open deer range. We believe this figure to be an underestimate, as the accumulation method applied in seemingly optimal habitat at Da Tien (5 replications) yielded an estimate of 157 + 68 hares per square kilometer. We have only a single point estimator for the Bang Xi site: 62 hares per square kilometer in seemingly optimal habitat. At each site, the optimal habitats are probably each smaller than 1 square kilometer. The hares appeared densest in the immediate vicinity of the ranger headquarters at each site.
We conclude that these deer ranches, on abandoned agricultural land once heavily forested, probably constitute a novel hare habitat today. These sites certainly support the best extant populations of Hainan hare on the island, as most sites where they naturally occurred no longer harbor viable populations. Even so, Bang Xi is close enough to Haikou to experience constant poaching pressure to supply the restaurant trade. Our data on the Hainan hare were used to determine the quantitative IUCN Category of Threat. The hare is "Vulnerable" due to the criteria of: Al a,c (Declining population, observed with direct observation and decline in area of occupancy and extent of occurrence). In addition, the species is also found to have a small distribution (Criteria B) undergoing continuing decline (B2a,c). This classification of "Vulnerable" could escalate quickly to a more endangered classification should current practices on Hainan Island prevail. We encourage active conservation of the hare, both in terms of increased enforcement of its protected status and increased attention given to its habitat requirements. Hainan Dao is not infrequently visited by foreign tourists. Interest indicated in this endemic hare, and requests to see it in its natural habitat, should greatly benefit its conservation.
We are indebted to Juqun Fen, Director of Da Tien Nature Preserve, and Daliang Fu, Vice-Director of Bang Xi Nature Preserve, for their hospitality and field assistance. Daxing Yun, Chief, and Chun Dong Wang, Wildlife Division, Hainan Provincial Forestry Department, provided logistical support. Dr. Xi Cai Yuan and Dr. Weiping Liao, both with decades of field experience on Hainan Dao, provided extensive advice and encouragement.
Andrew T. Smith, Chair Lagomorph Specialist Group, James Lazell, President Wenhua Lu The Conservation Agency Wei Xia, South China Institute of Endangered Animals Shan Yuan Li, Da Tien Nature Reserve, Hainan Dao