Rabbits at risk: Some species are among the most endangered mammals on the planetWe might think they’re safe since they ‘breed like rabbits,’ but many rabbits and hares are threatened with extinction
Whether we think of rabbits and hares as the cute, cuddly characters from our childhood storybooks or as pests of epic proportions, we can agree that one thing appears to be true: they aren’t in short supply … right?
It may surprise you to learn that several species of rabbits and hares are among the most endangered mammals on Earth. Out of 63 wild species, 22 are considered near threatened to critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Rabbits at risk
Remarkable Rabbits, a documentary from The Nature of Things, shows us the critical role that these animals play in our landscapes and ecosystems — and how many of them aren’t exactly “breeding like rabbits.”
Rabbits fall into a select group of mammals called “lagomorphs,” which also includes the lanky and long-eared hares of the open plains, and the short and stout pikas of the mountains. One of the most well-known members of this group is the European rabbit.
Out of 63 wild species, 22 are considered near threatened to critically endangered.
These rabbits have plagued farmers for centuries by digging burrows and causing damage to their crops. European rabbits have also travelled the world, being introduced to foreign lands, and have caused mass infestations in Australia and New Zealand, where they have few natural predators. They have even made it to remote sub-Antarctic islands.
The European rabbit has infiltrated our homes and pet shows, too. All domestic breeds of rabbit — 50 or so recognized breeds exist today — are descendants of the wild European rabbit.
But surprisingly, even the so-called “common” European rabbit is now considered near threatened. And if a species as widespread as the European rabbit could face trouble, it makes sense that many of the other 62 would be at risk, too.
Rare hares and rabbits
The riverine rabbit of South Africa is critically endangered; fewer than 250 are left in the world due to habitat degradation from agriculture. In Asia, the Amami rabbit is confined to a few Japanese islands and threatened by several factors including commercial development, while the Annamite striped rabbit of Vietnam that was only discovered by biologists in 1999 is already considered endangered as a result of hunting and deforestation.
Some rabbits and hares are habitat specialists, unable to live anywhere but in their native environment, which makes them very sensitive to habitat loss and climate change.
For example, the volcano rabbit of Mexico is only found on the slopes of four volcanoes near Mexico City. The entire species is confined to areas where zacaton bunchgrass grows, as volcano rabbits depend on the plant for food and shelter. But human encroachment and loss of zacaton to livestock grazing and burning for pasture are ensuring these little rabbits have nowhere to go.