Guest Post: Are rabbits in danger of extinction?

The following guest post was submitted by Robert Rowe, a frequent guest blogger here on PreppingBlog.com, the following post with the topic of “Are rabbits in danger of extinction?”.

Rabbit (Cottontail) (Creative Commons © 2008 Larry D. Moore)

Rabbit (Cottontail)
(CC © 2008 Larry D. Moore)

Normally, when one thinks of animals facing extinction images of polar bears, pandas or whales come to mind.  But, an animal whose propagation is legendary and synonymous with excess hardly receives any consideration at all.  Yet, this appears to be the case with rabbits globally. While Lagomorphs (the Order which contains rabbits, hares, chinchillas and others) have existed on Earth for some 40 million years, Leporidae are a relatively new Family of animal on the planet, spanning merely thousands of years compared to the hundreds of millions of years of existence for animals such as sharks and alligators or even the approximately two million years of Hominidae.  Our own Species (Homo Sapiens) has been around for approximately 200,000 years, about 20 times longer than the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) from which we derive most of the 60 or so recognized rabbit breeds currently remaining world-wide.

For the last hundred years or so, this alarming trend of rabbit extinctions has gone almost completely unnoticed by the public.  While it is true that in some areas of the world, rabbits are so prolific that they are considered nuisance animals or pests, here in America rabbit extinctions have become almost commonplace.  In fact, in America, we have lost 32 species of rabbit since 1900 with several more currently on the endangered list.

To be fair, of that 32 species, many were human developed breeds that simply fell out of favor or popularity.  During the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, it is estimated that there were over 200 distinct species of rabbit.  But, rabbits bred solely for show or pets often fell from popularity amongst the wealthy and breeders simply stopped raising them, allowing for their extinction.  Rabbits that provided sustenance for the poor and impoverished, on the other hand, maintained popularity and their numbers eventually grew to record levels.  However, by the 1950’s commercialization of meat products like beef and pork contributed to the all but nonexistent consumption of rabbit in the United States.  This, in turn, has contributed to the overall decline in the rabbit population in America as they became considered pests to be eradicated.

This is not a problem for just America, but for other areas of the world as well.  Europe, Russia, Japan, North Africa and South Africa are also experiencing the loss of various species of rabbits.  (Please note:  Rabbits and Hares are not the same.  This article deals solely with rabbit genera and species.)

European rabbits, currently on the endangered species list in several countries, originate from the Iberian Peninsula in what is now called Spain and Portugal.  The word Hispania from which Spain derives its name means “the land of rabbits.” They were most populous in that region and along the North African coastal region until recently.  It is estimated that the European Rabbit population has declined to less than 5% of its pre-1950’s levels throughout the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.  Human encroachment and other environmental factors are blamed for this massive and rapid decline.

Additionally, the European Patagonian breed (not to be confused with the Argentinian Patagonian breed) has already become extinct.

Here in America, we are currently working to preserve several species of rabbit including the Columbian Pygmy, Idahoan Pygmy, the New England Cottontail, the Sivilagus palustris hefneri (named after Hugh Hefner) and the Riparian Brush Rabbit just to name a few.  Human and cattle encroachment as well as the destruction of their native habitats are considered the predominant causes for the near extinction of these breeds, though in the case of the New England Cottontail, studies are still ongoing to determine the cause of its near extinction.

In Japan, the Amami rabbit is near extinction with only a few hundred known to remain.

In South Africa, the Riverine rabbit is close to extinction.  There have been some signs, recently, that point to possible recovery of this animal and researchers are investigating.

Given the prolific mating habits of rabbits, one may wonder why it is of concern that rabbit species are dying out.  Rabbits, being herbivores, are near the bottom of the food chain.  Most don’t understand the importance of these prey animals.  The closer to the bottom of the food chain, the more important the animal is.  In the case of rabbits, they provide much of the food for predatory animals such as foxes, coyotes, wolves, eagles and such.  Without rabbits, these predators will begin to die off or will be forced to prey on other species which are also endangered.  For example, in the Iberian Peninsula, the decline in the rabbit population has directly led to the rapid decline in the Iberian Lynx and Spanish Imperial Eagle populations, putting them on the endangered species list, also.

In other regions of the world, rabbits maintain and provide for the natural ecosystem of the environment in which they thrive.  Rabbits feed on fruits, grains, roots and vegetables that would otherwise overrun an ecosystem without rabbits to consume them.  Where the rabbit population has declined, aggressive plant species are beginning to wreak havoc on local ecosystems. Being herbivores, the excrement of rabbits provides some of the best fertilizer a plant could desire.

There is good news for the remaining species.  Due to their extreme “cuteness” rabbit keeping for pets is on the rise in North America as well as in parts of Europe such as UK and France.  Hopefully, as with dogs and cats, this trend may result in the creation of rabbits to perform certain functions.  For example, someone may develop a rabbit with underdeveloped claws which would make a great pet.  Others may develop rabbits for sport such as racing.  I would personally love to see a breed of garden rabbit that will only eat weeds leaving the cultivated plants unmolested. Imagine the popularity of a rabbit like that.

People are also beginning to understand the remarkable benefit of consuming rabbit meat.  Extremely low in fat it is an increasingly popular choice among an obese American society.  Additionally, rabbit meat is the easiest meat for humans to digest, increasing GI tract health and absorption of nutrients by the body.  Rabbit meat, much like chicken, also has a remarkable ability work well with just about any spice arrangement. While it is unrealistic to assume that rabbit meat will someday compete with beef and pork for a place at the dinner table, it is, again, increasing in its popularity due to its nutritional benefits and low fat content.

The human race may not be able to save all the currently endangered species of rabbit.  However, we have the ability and responsibility to try and preserve and protect those currently not in danger.  Domesticating rabbits is one possible means of performing this feat.  So is commercialization of their meat.  But, more importantly, we must preserve those existing in the wild so as not to lose the benefit they provide us, the animal Kingdom, the plant Kingdom and the Earth in general.

Why would I create an article on the preservation of rabbits for a prepper/survivalist forum?  Simple: the cultivation of rabbits is not particularly difficult nor is it particularly expensive if done properly.  As a prepper, I have undertaken this task and found it to be an enjoyable and tasty hobby.  In a future article, I will expound on this more.  Until then, pay attention to the rabbit population in your area.  As they become extinct, it will have a major impact on your local ecosystem, perhaps disastrously so.

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