When Marthie Nel Hauptfleisch first sang enquiring “Hasie Hoekom Is Jou Stert So Kort?” did she stop to consider that whilst Hasie’s tail is indeed short, the tale of the rabbit is in fact an incredibly long one?
Ancestors of modern day rabbits and hares (Leporidae) can be traced, through fossil records, all the way back to 55 million years ago. Our own path through history has been intersected many times by Leporids and there are times when we have even run directly parallel to one another. As we did in the past, we still to this day rely on rabbits and hares as sources of food and fur, and continue to use them as symbols within religious and folklore iconography. Images of rabbits and hares have been used throughout history to represent an array of different ideas ranging from fertility to trickery, and from Pagan Goddesses to part of modern-day Easter celebrations. The Hare is even mentioned within the Bible, where it is noted as unclean and therefore should not grace the table of Hebrews.
When Europeans descended upon Australia they brought rabbits with them; until then Australia and Antarctica were the only continents on Earth not to have any species of rabbits naturally occurring. Subsequently invasive rabbit populations have caused havoc within the local ecosystem, leading to the destruction of the natural biodiversity and depletion and extinction of native species. In Australia the rabbit now symbolises and embodies one of the most invasive animals and man-made natural disasters in modern history.
In South Africa, ironically, it is our native rabbits and hares which are now arguably most at risk from their introduced European and American cousins. Foreign rabbits were initially introduced on the Islands off the Cape’s shores as a food source for passing sailors but now find themselves in the hearts of pet owners and breeders across the country. Whilst cute and cuddly they do pose a risk.
Last year Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) was recorded for the first time in South Africa. RHD is an extremely contagious, fatal viral hepatitis that affects domesticated and wild rabbits, and if untreated can lead to organs like the spleen, liver and kidneys haemorrhaging. Since November 2022 over 350 known cases of RHD deaths have been reported to the state vet and with strict importation restrictions on domestic rabbits in place, it’s still unknown how this virus entered the country. As RHD continues to infect indigenous rabbit and hare populations within the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape the future of our indigenous Leporids populations are unclear.
In times like ours we have to question the role that feral populations of domestic rabbit play within the landscape. Whether it is caused by people dumping unwanted pets or by irresponsible pet ownership, these animals are neglected and have become commonplace within residential and green areas around town. Abandoned animals can easily become carriers for diseases, which are then passed on directly or indirectly onto other animals.
Cases of suspected RHD should be reported to the state vet. Abandoned animals, including rabbits, or the improper care of domestic animals should be reported to SPCA or the local authority like the Municipality who has bylaws pertaining to the proper keeping of such animals.