Bonnie Schumann, the EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme, bonnies@ewt.org.za 

The ancient landscapes of the Karoo are home to one of South Africa’s most elusive and Critically Endangered species, the Riverine Rabbit. Riverine Rabbits occur in three known populations in three separate regions of the Karoo. Originally thought to only occur in the Nama Karoo, where they were first discovered in 1901, rabbits were later discovered near Touwsriver in the Succulent Karoo in 2003. This discovery completely upended the applecart on what we knew about the distribution and behaviour of this species. However, at least one other surprise was awaiting us when a third population was discovered west of the Baviaanskloof in 2018.

Riverine Rabbit Camera Trap image

In the 1990s, landowners and conservationists joined forces to create Riverine Rabbit conservancies in the Loxton-Fraserburgh-Beaufort West area of the Nama Karoo to conserve the species. These conservancies still exist today. Even though many of these landowners rarely, or in some cases, have never seen a Riverine Rabbit, they are passionate about conserving them on their properties. While rabbits occur in three different regions of the Karoo, their threats are the same in all three landscapes. The most severe threats are habitat loss and damage to the remaining habitat. The floodplains of the seasonal rivers in the Karoo consist of deep alluvial soil areas that make for fertile agricultural soil in an otherwise arid landscape. These areas are largely transformed into ploughed lands, which in many cases now lie fallow and abandoned. The changing economic situations and erratic rainfall make it risky to depend on rain-fed cropping and flood irrigation. In recent decades, it has not been worthwhile to grow rain-fed crops in many places across the drylands.

In the past, the riparian areas, often comprising floodplains a few kilometres wide, were densely vegetated and would have provided a unique habitat to a range of species, including the Riverine Rabbit. The loss of over 60% of the riparian vegetation was devastating for the Nama Karoo Riverine Rabbit population. Outside of the riparian zone, the vegetation does not provide enough cover for a species that relies on dense vegetation to avoid detection and capture by predators. Rabbits have disappeared from areas where the vegetation is overgrazed and “opened up” by livestock. They are an indicator species for ecosystem health, and If the riparian vegetation is managed sustainably, rabbits will persist. If not, they will continue to quietly vanish.

Following the initial discovery of rabbits in the Succulent Karoo, surveys for rabbits took place in the riparian areas, based on the assumption that the “southern” rabbits use the landscape similarly to their Nama Karoo counterparts, which are riparian habitat specialists. Here is where it became interesting. What is now clear is that rabbits in the Succulent Karoo can range more widely across the landscape, occurring outside of riparian areas where the vegetation on the gently sloping hills is often quite dense. They occur outside the riparian zones, and their range also extends into a third Biome, the Fynbos Biome, where they primarily favour the Renosterveld vegetation. The fact that the rabbits can persist in vegetation units outside the riparian zones in the Succulent Karoo is very fortunate, given that much of their riparian habitat has been lost to agriculture. This means that the gently sloping areas that are unsuitable for ploughing and are densely vegetated have provided critical refuges for rabbits. It is probably safe to speculate that Riverine Rabbits were once widely distributed along the valleys and hills of the Little Karoo. However, the extensive loss of habitat across this region has resulted in them remaining only in pockets of suitable intact vegetation. Conservationists are researching the genetics of the region’s rabbit populations – how closely they are related to each other and their overall genetic health –  to understand how viable the populations are and if any connectivity (gene-flow) between the three populations still exists.

The spectacular Anysberg Nature Reserve was officially declared in 1990 to formally protect the incredible but highly threatened biodiversity of the Succulent Karoo, an internationally recognised biodiversity “hotspot”. Riverine Rabbits were recorded in the reserve for the first time in 2013. This was the best news of the century for rabbit conservation because the discovery meant that the reserve was the first formally protected area to boast a Riverine Rabbit population. What is doubly exciting is that landowners bordering the reserve had a vision for conservation going back 25 years. Several individuals bought properties in this area to conserve the land and wildlife. Livestock was removed, and the land has been resting and recovering ever since. In 2018, one of the landowners approached the Endangered Wildlife Trust to assist him in taking his conservation efforts to the next level by declaring the property a contractual Nature Reserve. As a result, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, CapeNature (the designated authority with statutory responsibility for biodiversity conservation in the Western Cape) and six landowners are collaborating to declare a cluster of properties as nature reserves. These contractual reserves will be formally protected and attain the same status as the Provincial Reserves, effectively expanding protected areas at a national level. This essentially means that the Anysberg Nature Reserve, also a World Heritage Site, will be buffered by an additional 20,000 hectares of protected landscapes. Several additional vegetation units, each supporting unique and, in many cases, endemic plant and animal species, not yet included in the Anysberg Nature Reserve, will now also be formally protected.This initiative is testimony to what can be achieved when stakeholders combine forces to achieve a shared vision. Many species facing severe persecution outside protected areas, including Leopard, Brown Hyaena and Honey Badger, will now be able to safely roam over an increasingly vast area. And, of course, as the largest formally protected area cluster for Riverine Rabbits, it now represents the single most important stronghold for Riverine Rabbits in South Africa. In this case, size is critical, as only a small portion of the entire area will meet the habitat requirements for rabbits, so the bigger the area, the better.

Ecotourism, including adventure tourism and, in some cases, limited agricultural activities, provide a diversified income for the landowners around the Anysberg Nature Reserve. This is an extremely marginal area for extensive livestock production, and the reality is that the veld has been utilised to, and in some cases beyond, its limits and can no longer support herds of goats and sheep. Developing a “green” conservation-based economy can breathe new life into this region where poverty and unemployment are rife. Ecotourism provides jobs, supports livelihoods, and can help fund the restoration work that needs to be done in the degraded areas. The Anysberg is only approximately 260 kilometres from Cape Town, making it easily accessible as a weekend getaway. It is also easily accessible to international tourists looking for some peace and quiet in one of the most beautiful and safe regions of South Africa.

There are few undiscovered natural gems left out there. The Anysberg area is truly one of the most exciting and largely undiscovered gems in South Africa. The shared vision for this area is to develop an economy based on what the region has to offer in terms of unspoiled landscapes, wide-open skies, and incredible scenic beauty while conserving the unrivalled unique biodiversity of the Succulent Karoo. The project’s next phase is supported by IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by the European Union.

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