Riverine Rabbit Conservation
To promote the survival of riverine rabbits in South Africa
The riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is one of southern Africa's most threatened mammals and has recently been re-assessed and upgraded from endangered to critically endangered in the Red Data Book of the Mammals of South Africa (2004). With an estimation of less than 250 mature individuals being left in the wild today, the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. The species is endemic to the semi-arid Central and Upper Karoo of South Africa (Nama and Succulent Karoo). Within its distribution area the rabbit 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. The riverine rabbit is a habitat specialist occupying habitat that is also of economic importance to landowners in terms of cultivation and small-stock grazing. It thus functions as a key indicator species for these critical river zones, as its regional extinction in many areas of its former natural distribution range is indicative of the degradation, fragmentation and loss of riverine vegetation caused by overutilisation, cultivation and transformation of river channels. The direct threats to the species are illegal hunting with dogs by farm labour staff and the irresponsible use of leg-hold (gin) traps.
All conservation efforts for the riverine rabbit and its habitat are coordinated by the Riverine Rabbit Programme (RRP) of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which is an IUCN member.
The RRP’s vision is a functional, healthy Karoo ecosystem and suitable socio-economic conditions that can support a stable population of riverine rabbits along the seasonal river courses of the Karoo region. The programme aims to conserve the biodiversity of the Karoo region, to encourage private landowners to participate in conservation stewardship and to promote integrated land management practices that can sustain the riverine rabbit, its habitat and many other species while ensuring socio-economic benefits to landowners and communities – this species thus functions as the flagship species of the Karoo. The programme so far represents the only non-governmental conservation organisation in the Central and Upper Karoo region (Nama Karoo) and understands its critical role in future conservation, environmental education and capacity building for leaders in previously disadvantaged local communities of the Karoo. The goals of the RRP are as follows:
To know the extent of occurrence, area of occupancy and population size of the riverine rabbit.
To develop an understanding of and appreciation for the riverine rabbit within the role players (e.g. farmers, farm labour staff, learners, educators, conservation and agriculture extension officers, townsfolk) in the Karoo.
To create a deeper understanding of conservation and environment related issues and the implications thereof among farm labour staff and school learners.
To promote and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources.
To achieve well protected, suitable riverine habitat that can ensure the survival and interconnectivity of riverine rabbit populations and still provide economic benefits to landowners.
To have an ongoing monitoring programme for the riverine rabbit and its habitat.
To establish a network of protected areas (by implementing the Conservation Stewardship Programme) that is conducive to the conservation of the riverine rabbit and its habitat.
To support ongoing multi-disciplinary research projects on the biology, ecology and conservation of the riverine rabbit and its habitat.
To establish an effective public awareness programme linked with ecotourism in the Karoo region (Northern and Western Cape provinces).
A Conservation Management Plan has been developed by the RRP, which identifies seven different conservation programmes. The report of the Riverine Rabbit Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) Workshop is used by the programme as a species conservation guideline. Since the PHVA Workshop in 2000, awareness of the threatened status of the riverine rabbit and its habitat has increased enormously in South Africa as well as abroad. In partnership with other South African NGOs and the provincial conservation authorities, an effective environmental education programme has been established. Part of this is the Riverine Rabbit Eco-School node, which is supported by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) and WWF–SA.
More research is still required to better understand the species’ biology and ecology. However, recent ongoing mtDNA investigations into the population genetics of Bunolagus suggests that it is critical to conserve suitable riverine habitat that will allow natural connectivity among sub-populations. It is also crucial to identify all habitat fragments that occupy riverine rabbits, estimate the sizes of isolated sub-populations and determine key habitat corridors for the species' dispersal. Therefore, comprehensive field surveys are conducted by the RRP to collect the necessary data on the species current distribution range and the condition of its habitat.
By using the data provided by the survey team, the RRP is able to identify priority areas for the species’ conservation, riverine habitat rehabilitation, environmental education and awareness campaigns as well as for the establishment of Riverine Rabbit Conservancies. At present, the RRP is promoting a conservation stewardship programme in the Karoo in cooperation with the provincial conservation authorities.
The aim of a habitat management programme is to establish sound habitat management principles that will be conducive to the conservation of the riverine rabbit. In cooperation with landowners and the Department of Agriculture, the most effective veld rehabilitation techniques are discussed and tested. Further programmes of the RRP include species montitoring and publicity generation.
WAZA Conservation Project 05025 is implemented by Endangered Wildlife Trust's Riverine Rabbit Programme, supported by Münster Zoo, African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZAB), Zoologische Gesellschaft für Arten- und Populationsschutz (ZGAP), Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), WWF–SA, in cooperation with Cape Nature, Department of Tourism, Environment and Conservation, South African National Parks, Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch.
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