If there’s one thing you’d expect from the reproductively gifted rabbit, it’s an upward-pointing population curve, right? What else from animals whose powers of procreation have spawned a catchphrase? But it is not so for one rabbit species endemic to the rugged landscapes of South Africa’s Karoo region. In fact, with only around 400 individuals left in the wild and a 'critically endangered' listing from the IUCN hanging over its furry head, the riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) qualifies as one of the rarest mammals in southern Africa.

“With only around 400 individuals left in the wild, the riverine rabbit qualifies as one of the rarest mammals in southern Africa.”

So what went wrong for the riverine rabbit? Over the past 70 years, more than two-thirds of its habitat has been swallowed up by agriculture or ruined by overgrazing. As its name suggests, the riverine rabbit's favoured haunts are the fertile floodplains of the Karoo's seasonal rivers ... the very same areas that have historically been most in demand for agriculture. With its riverine habitat ploughed over, the rabbit's numbers plummeted, an estimated decline of around 60% over those decades. Remaining populations clung to survival mostly on fragments of farmland, outside of protected areas and therefore vulnerable and difficult for conservationists to monitor. Things were not looking good for Bunolagus monticularis.

With the threat of extinction looming, two conservation organisations stepped in to try to protect the rabbit and its habitat. In 2003, Cape Nature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) launched the Drylands Conservation Programme, which focuses not only on saving the rare lagomorphs, but also the stretches of Karoo they call home. The rabbit became a flagship species – drumming up more support for its conservation would hopefully benefit the region as a whole, and any other wildlife within it. And with most of the rabbits scraping by on farmland, helping them also meant working closely with farm owners on strategies that help rabbits and humans coexist.  

06 03 2014 Riverine Rabbit Anysberg Nature Reserve
After some genetic samples were taken, the young rabbit caught at Anysberg Nature Reserve was safely released. Image: Nkosinathi Moyo

And then, late last year, an unexpected dose of good news. A new population of the rabbits popped up in a very different part of the Karoo – and this time, the animals were hopping about on protected land, within the 81,000-hectare Anysberg Nature Reserve in South Africa's Western Cape province. The species had been spotted in this part of the Karoo before (back in 2003), but this was the first sign of the rabbits in a formally protected area anywhere in the country (it's likely the rabbits had migrated there from a nearby farm). A night survey was set up to confirm the sightings and a young rabbit was caught, proving the animals were also doing what rabbits are supposed to do best: breeding.

In addition to monitoring the 'farmland' populations, conservation groups now had new rabbit territory to keep an eye on, and lots of research to carry out to determine how the new population differs from riverine rabbits elsewhere. Tracking small animals that are rare, elusive, well camouflaged and predominantly nocturnal is no easy task ... which is why conservationists turned to technology to help them out. 

"The Endangered Wildlife Trust's riverine rabbit project is forging ahead with exciting rabbit research," says Christy Bragg, the manager of the conservation programme. "We are using mobile camera traps to detect and count these rare critters."

Motion-activated camera traps are a great tool for determining the density of populations, in addition to providing important information about rabbit behaviour and habits. Knowing more about the species is essential for developing effective conservation strategies.  Previous trials using camera traps have already shown success, and the technology is now being tested out on a larger scale. A new study launched at the start of this month involves camera traps set up in a specialised grid system to cover large swathes of rabbit territory. 

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Cameras will also be keeping tabs on the more recently discovered population of rabbits (to which the hoppers in Anysberg Nature Reserve belong). "We are very excited about this project as it entails finding out more about this relatively unresearched Cape population, which we know use different habitat to the northern Karoo population of rabbits. This project will also use camera traps to get a better picture of what these furry hoppers are doing," says Bragg.

But the technology doesn't come cheap. Despite receiving some funding to help with its much-needed conservation work, the programme still needs financial help. "We are still in desperate need for funds for additional cameras," says Bragg. "Ideally, we need to have several batches of cameras working simultaneously throughout riverine rabbit habitat."

So, if you'd like to do your bit to help one of the world's rarest rabbits go forth and multiply, head on over to the EWT website and make a donation.