Conservation of the Karoo’s Riverine Rabbit

Endemic to the riverine scrub of the central Karoo, the riverine rabbit has a number of interesting names by which it is known locally – boshaas, vleihaas, doekvoetjie and pondhaas. The first two are references to its habitat, with ‘doekvootjie’ (downy feet) being a reference to the furry underfoot of the rabbit’s broad hind paws. ‘Pondhaas’ (pound rabbit) is believed to have come about during the 1940s, when the curator of the museum in King Williams Town offered a reward of a pound – the currency of the time – for each riverine rabbit delivered to him.

With its large ears, brown woolly tail and creamy-colored fur on its throat and belly, the riverine rabbit has a distinctive black stripe starting at the corners of its mouth and extending over its cheeks. Its hind feet are particularly broad and club-like with thick downy pads. Resting during the day under bushes in hollows scraped out of the soil, riverine rabbits feed at night on the indigenous boegoe bush and ink bush. At night their droppings are hard and pellet-like, while during the day they pass soft droppings which they swallow for their high vitamin B, calcium and phosphorus content.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust has categorized riverine rabbits as critically endangered. As is the case with so many endangered species worldwide, the riverine rabbit is faced with habitat destruction, and with only a few hundred animals remaining in the wild, there is a very real threat of the species becoming extinct. In 2003 the EWT established the Riverine Rabbit Program (EWT-RRP) to try and remedy this situation. Its vision is to establish an ecosystem and socio-economic conditions along the seasonal rivers of the central Karoo to support a breeding population of riverine rabbits. To achieve this they are encouraging private landowners to participate as conservation stewards and promote land management protocols to sustain the habitat upon which the riverine rabbit, and many other species of animals, depend.

Land management would include refraining from ploughing and cultivating the alluvial floodplains of the Karoo’s seasonal rivers, as this practice is causing destructive erosion. By leaving the riverine habitat undisturbed, the soil would be stabilized by indigenous vegetation, preventing it from washing away and filtering rainwater to groundwater which can be drawn up by windmills to water livestock. In this way, farmers who support conservation efforts are benefiting and the riverine rabbit may still stand a chance of avoiding extinction.