RABBIT IN THE HEADLIGHTS

Photo credit Arno Meintjies

Innocent Buthelezi, Field Officer, EWT Wildlife and Transport Programme

innocentb@ewt.org.za

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a rabbit and a hare?

Many people often get confused between rabbits and hares, or simply refer to them all as ‘bunnies’.  In South Africa, we have three hare species – the Scrub Hare, Cape Hare and African Savannah Hare, and several rabbit species; these include a number of Rock Rabbit species and the Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbit, which the EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme is working to conserve. Despite its name, the Spring Hare is not in the ‘bunny’ family but is more related to rodents!

Facts about South Africa’s best-known bunny

Hares are much larger than rabbits, with longer hind legs and ears. The Scrub Hare has a distinct colouration, with a white stomach and a brown-grey back with black-flecks, giving the coat a grizzled appearance. Its tail is like that of a typical bunny – a fluffy marshmallow look, which is black on top and white underneath. Probably its most distinguishing feature is its enormous doe-like eyes and long, pointy ears. And you see them everywhere – they are found all over the country.

To see them, you have to be out at night, as they are nocturnal. They also prefer open areas so they can spot potential predators. They are very good at hiding from predators during the day and often create a small dent in the ground and lie flat in a motionless form, with their ears tucked back to their shoulders. If they remain motionless, predators cannot detect them because their coloration blends in with the scrubland and vegetation. A big difference between rabbits and hares is that rabbits nest in burrows, underground, whilst hares nest above ground.

What’s a baby bunny called?

Baby rabbits are called kittens or bunnies whilst baby hares are called leverets – and a female can have between 1-3 per litter as many as four times a year. In general, you will only ever see them alone, except during the breeding period between September and February.

Favourite food

Just like your pet bunny, Scrub Hares are herbivores, but they don’t live on lettuce! They prefer green grass. They also practice coprophagia, which is the consumption of dung and helps them maximise digestion. It doesn’t sound very tasty!

Bunny abundance and threats

According to the IUCN Red List, the total population of Scrub Hares is more than 10,000 individuals. That’s a lot of bunnies although some experts say their numbers are dropping. As with many wildlife species, this is mainly due to habitat fragmentation, commercial plantations, hunting (for traditional medicines, bushmeat and for fur) and roads.

Scrub Hares are renowned for running onto the road at night, and then when they see the headlights of a vehicle – they treat it like a predator. They zig-zag as they run to try and escape into the shadows, or stand still, startled and blinded by the headlights – this is often to their demise, and eventually the vehicle runs them down, and they become roadkill.

The EWT’s Wildlife and Transport Programme has been recording animal road mortalities since 2011, and the Scrub Hare is by far the most common roadkill, with almost 1,000 reported by members of the public and toll concessionaire companies Bakwena, N3TC and TRAC N4 over a three year period. Due to their abundance, it is often challenging to obtain support to reduce the threats from roads to this humble species – but they can cause damage to vehicles when hit, as well as cause secondary roadkill to larger species who may come onto the road to scavenge on them. Therefore, it is critical that we make an effort now to prevent their demise on roads through creating safe crossing points and utilising the culverts underneath the road.

‘You can’t shut the stable door after the horse has bolted’ – so whilst the Scrub Hare seems to be flourishing at the moment, there may come a day when unlawful hunting, the loss of natural areas, and roadkill will place them alongside the Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbit.

Please report any roadkill sightings to roads@ewt.org.za or download our app, EWT Road Watch, from Google Play.

The core supporters of the Wildlife and Transport Programme are Bakwena Platinum Corridor Concessionaire, De Beers Group of Companies, Ford Wildlife Foundation, N3 Toll Concession and TRAC N4, dedicated to minimising the negative interactions between wildlife and transport infrastructure.