Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Robben Island in crisis 

April 30, 2008, John Yeld, Daily News  

Robben Island's natural environment is in a state of crisis, with animals like bontebok, springbok, fallow deer and rabbits starving to death because of a lack of vegetation on this important World Heritage Site.Carcasses are lying in dry veld, where only inedible khakibos weeds are still thriving.

Although the island is always very dry at the end of summer, the problem is mainly the result of an explosion of the feral rabbit population which is eating everything in sight. A delay in reducing the number of fallow deer has also contributed to the problem.

Environmentalists are horrified by the state of affairs, and are blaming the island's managers - the Robben Island Museum - for the disaster because they allegedly ignored warnings about the ecological threat posed by the rabbits given to them at least three years ago.

Environmentalists warned the island's prestigious World Heritage Site status, previously threatened because of the poor environmental management, could again come under review. Although some mammals have been removed during the past year, there is not enough suitable food on the island for those left behind. And while a rabbit culling programme was initiated, it was stopped - apparently because the contractor had not been paid.

Weird behaviour has been observed as starving animals attempt to reach every piece of available greenery. The rabbits are climbing acacia thorn trees on the island and have been seen high up among the thorns, while a fallow deer was observed trying to feed off the carcass of a roadkill rabbit. Both rabbits and deer have been spotted feeding off kelp on the beach.

Estelle van der Merwe, who worked closely with the Robben Island authorities during the Treasure oil spill in 2000, said she was appalled by the situation. "I have been going there since 1994 and I have never seen the island, and specifically the animals and the environment, in as bad a state as they are now," she said. "There is very little groundcover left and parts of the island are extremely sandy. The buck are literally starving and have difficulty with access to water."

Van der Merwe said "the final straw" had been seeing springbok with their ribs "very clearly visible". She said she intended contacting Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Rejoice Mabudafhasi about the issue and would ask her to visit the island "as a matter of urgency".

Robben Island Museum falls under the Department of Arts and Culture. Prof Les Underhill, director of the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town whose students have done substantial research on the island's seabird population, is also very concerned.


"The carrying capacity of the island for grazers such as rabbits and fallow deer has been grossly exceeded this summer," he said. "The island looks like a desert, and rabbits have been feeding four metres above the ground, climbing in among the top branches of the trees.

"They have eaten the bark off trees, and it remains to be seen if they have effectively been ringbarked, and will die. A fallow deer, which is primarily a grazer, has been observed eating the corpse of a rabbit. "The island ecosystem has taken huge strain this summer, and the path to recovery looks more complex than simply the arrival of the winter rains."

The bontebok population, which is of great conservation value because it is a pure strain of this species uncontaminated by cross-breeding with closely-related blesbok, has been particularly hard hit and numbers have crashed.

A count in April last year revealed 80 individual bontebok. Fifty of these animals were removed in July, and during two separate counts in September, 21 bontebok were recorded, including five youngsters.

But last week just two could be found. Although the managers belatedly brought in some fodder for the mammals last week and have now also asked SA National Parks for assistance, this may be too late for the bontebok, which are exclusively grazers and do not take artificial feed.

The number of springbok has declined from a maximum of 42 in 2004 to 25 last year to just 12 this year, and the fallow deer population, which reached a maximum of 223 last year, is down to little more than 90 at present. Some of these deer were culled at the end of April, and visitors were appalled when bloody carcasses were loaded aboard a ferry in full view of tourists, some of whom took pictures or videos.

Rabbits were introduced to the island soon after Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1658, and are considered part of its cultural-historical heritage. Their numbers were kept in check partly by the feral cat population, which also devastated seabird populations.

After substantial delays by management during which breeding by the seabirds - including threatened African Black Oystercatchers - was severely disrupted, a cat eradication programme was eventually instituted. But it was stopped before all the cats were removed, reportedly because of funding problems, and there are at present still at least five left.

Underhill said it was "extremely disappointing" that there were still cats on the island. "Seabirds breed on islands to avoid predators. The Robben Island cats are the descendants of pets abandoned a long time ago, and they cause death and destruction for penguins, terns, oystercatchers and even to the island's chameleon population.

"We don't want to see more cats killed than is absolutely necessary, but this is an inevitable consequence of the island authorities' long drawn-out eradication operation."

Van der Merwe said conservationists wanted the island's managers to institute an immediate crisis plan for the remaining mammals on the island and to develop an environmental management plan to ensure their effective future management. Robben Island Museum has been asked to respond. 

Comment: Rabbit Advocacy was recently contacted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals regarding an inquiry they had received about how to humanely manage a population of feral rabbits on an island.  Further information elicited was that it was in reference to the rabbits living on Robben Island.  We did a search and found that there are estimated to be 4,000 – 5, 000 of these critters!  CapeNature, responsible for biodiversity conservation in the area, prohibits the live removal of the European rabbit.  Regarded as an exotic invasive species, South Africa does not want rabbits released anywhere on the mainland, fearing a "catastrophic event" similar to Australia's invasion of rabbits. Evidently there have been many previous offers of rescue for not only the rabbits, but other wildlife, but other than a worsening situation, there has been little change.  The day-to-day suffering and death among the various species is taking its toll.  True to human form, there's the usual bickering, fighting, and politics at play among various groups and officials, instead of an efficient collaboration to save the animals.  

Problems at Robben Island, Mandela jail site (excerpt) 

July 17, 2008 - Clare Nullis, Associated Press                                                                                                

The island's problems even include an infestation of 4,000 rabbits, who have overrun the world heritage site treasured for its colonies of penguins and endangered birds.

Rabbits have nibbled away what little vegetation grows in the barren soil — including Nel's garden. The bunny population exploded after authorities removed 100 wild cats that had been stalking rare birds, including the endangered black oyster catcher.

The flash of rabbit tails punctuates the landscape they are decimating. Wildlife officials and local game reserve owners must bring in food for other island animals, and plan to move the estimated 200 European fallow deer — regarded as an alien species and so not allowed under South Africa's strict conservation rules — to mainland parks. Animal welfare groups initially protested plans to kill the rabbits. But now, even the head of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Allan Perrins, concedes that "the rabbits must go.”  

CapeNature advises on the management of alien animals on Robben Island, 29 May 2008 (excerpt) 

The live removal of rabbits to the mainland to be strictly prohibited.
CapeNature has been liaising with Robben Island Nature Reserve for a number of years to address the exploding alien fallow deer and rabbit population and subsequent over-utilisation of natural ecosystems found on the Island. 


Although fluffy and cute and probably an ideal pet, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is on a global scale one of the most pernicious and destructive invasive species.  The rabbit has successfully invaded every continent except Asia and Antarctica causing massive negative impacts on the environment wherever they have invaded.  It is not perchance that rabbits are is listed as one of the world’s worst invasive alien species by the IUCN/SSC’s Invasive Species Specialist Group and are in fact regarded by some, along with the common rat, as being one of the world’s five worst invasive species.

Feral populations of rabbits have a devastating impact on any natural environment in that they compete with indigenous wildlife, damage vegetation and degrade the land.  Rabbits are responsible for serious erosion problems as they eat virtually any and all plants available to them (including roots and seeds), which leaves the topsoil exposed and vulnerable to erosion.  This removal of topsoil is devastating to the land as it may take hundreds of years to regenerate the topsoil to its original condition.  Not only do rabbits destroy many indigenous plants by overgrazing, but because rabbits graze more closely than domestic stock and wild animals, they weaken perennial grasses, which allow weed invasion and further soil destabilization.  Rabbits are most destructive in arid and semi-arid zones where soils are fragile and more prone to erosion once ground cover is removed, this is important to note given that over 90% of South Africa’s landscape is classified as arid, semi-arid or sub-humid.

Australia, where rabbits have probably had the most profound environmental as well as economic impact than any other area, carries a number of important lessons for South Africa insofar as the risks posed by feral rabbits.  In 1859 only 24 wild rabbits were released into the wild in Australia.  By 1926 the figure was estimated to be 10 billion rabbits!  The spread of rabbits in Australia was the fastest of any colonizing mammal anywhere in the world (130 kilometres per year).  Given the ecological and climatological similarities between South Africa (especially the Western Cape Province) and Australia and the rabbits’ ability occur in a variety of habitats, ranging from deserts to coastal plains, it is critical that we do not allow rabbits to be released in the wild anywhere in South Africa where a catastrophic event similar to Australia’s rabbit-invasion is a certainty.

South Africa: 'Eco-Xenophobia' for Island's Deer

June 8, 2008

Robben Island's grazing can no longer support the antelope and fallow deer because of the proliferation of rabbits, which occurred when feral cats were removed. On Saturday Derman, who estimates that it will cost him at least R600 000 to rescue the deer, said he believed he could remove enough animals in six months for the veld to start recovering.

He plans to feed the animals for another three weeks to build up their strength. Then he wants to capture them, move them to holding camps in the old walled part of the prison, where they could be vaccinated, fed intensively and sterilised then take them off the island.

Derman said the rabbits will not be allowed to leave the island. "Our plan is to manufacture five to 10 portable traps designed to capture between 10 and 50 rabbits at a time." Derman said vet Douw Grobbelaar had agreed to oversee the capture and sterilisation process.

However, as much as they laud Derman's efforts, some no-kill animal welfare organisations believe the current policies of CapeNature almost guarantee that the fallow deer will eventually be killed. Kas Hamman, CapeNature's director of bio-diversity, "strongly advised" culling the deer and rabbits on site or to arrange for the removal of the deer according to its stringent guidelines. He said they would not allow the rabbits off the island.  http://allafrica.com/stories/200806090801.html

Update: Robben Island closes for two weeks for mass rabbit 'culling program', thousands dispatched

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Man is nature's sole mistake. W. S. Gilbert