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CROUCHING ROCKS, HIDDEN RABBITS

Bonnie Schumann, EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme, Senior Field Officer, bonnies@ewt.org.za

Searching for Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbits (Bunolagus monticularis) in the vast and rugged Karoo landscape is one of the hardest but most rewarding aspects of what we do. Marienne de Villiers, Faunal Ecologist with CapeNature, and I recently spotted a rabbit on a night drive on the Lettas Kraal Private Nature Reserve. This was a first for Marienne, who admitted that she was starting to doubt the existence of this mythical creature! When reflecting on our success, we realised that we had tallied up just over eight hours of searching on two rather freezing cold night drives before we got lucky and laid eyes on a live rabbit between the two of us. After a few hours of searching for all creatures great and small in the beam of a spotlight, from the back of a bakkie bumping along a dusty dirt track, one tends to get a bit cross-eyed. As a result, we had spotted many rabbits along the way, only to discover on closer inspection that they were rabbit-like rocks crouching in the veld, while the real rabbits remained safely hidden!

These bunnies are the ultimate masters of hiding in plain sight, so seeing a live Riverine Rabbit is somewhat of an achievement that few people can lay claim to. Although camera trap surveys in 2019 and 2020 revealed their presence, Riverine Rabbits had never actually been seen on Lettas Kraal. This trend is not unusual, given that the species managed to remain undetected, in two of the three landscapes in which it occurs, for over a hundred years! Following their initial discovery near Deelfontein in the Nama Karoo in 1901, they were only recorded in the Little Karoo, a distinct geographic region lying within the Succulent Karoo, for the first time in 2003. This southern population was in the Touwsriver area, and as recently as 2018, an eastern population was found in the Uniondale area. In both cases, the documenting of roadkill was what finally revealed their presence.

Lettas Kraal, home to many Little Karoo botanical gems, some of which have not even been described yet, is also home to a known population of Riverine Rabbits. This property is in the process of being declared a Contract Nature Reserve, which will ensure the safety and protection of the unique biodiversity there. The night drive was part of the process of documenting the biodiversity on this beautiful property. This process is already well underway, following detailed botanical and camera trap surveys in 2020. Three hours into this particular night drive, our persistence paid off when Marienne spotted a Karoo Chameleon (Bradypodium gutturale). This was an impressive demonstration of her ability to multitask, as between driving and batting (more on this later), she spotted this small creature nestled on its Gwarriebos perch as the beam of the weaving spotlight passed over the bush. Widespread habitat degradation and loss pose a severe risk to these ancient-looking little reptiles. Adding this species to the Lettas Kraal inventory was a rare feel-good moment, knowing that this species, too, is safe on Lettas Kraal, under the protective eye of Johan Roodt, the owner of Lettas Kraal. If you wondered what “batting” mentioned earlier is all about, this entails listening for and recording bat calls. Capturing recordings of bat calls is one of the most effective ways of documenting bat species presence – for which Marienne has quite a knack.

After our exciting rabbit show at the magic hour of midnight, we grabbed a few hours of sleep before we set off early again – this time with Jan Vlok, renowned Succulent Karoo botanist also working on Lettas Kraal. Jan was on a mission to supplement the botanical survey he did in Spring 2020 with what the autumn season had to offer. Despite telling us, “If it doesn’t photosynthesise, I’m not interested!” Jan is a veritable encyclopaedia on all things Karoo. Over 20 autumn species were added to the more than 800 species counted in spring.

Many more species await documenting, and getting the full picture will literally take years. Plants need to be particularly picky about when they expose themselves because expending energy and resources, particularly during the flowering and seeding process, is a risky business at the best of times. In a region where the rainfall varies between 100 mm and 450 mm per year, and summer temperatures can exceed 40⁰C, often accompanied by blistering berg winds, the risks are next level. It’s all about timing, and some species will wait years to put it all out there. It requires a lot of luck to have feet on the ground just when the conditions are, for an all too short time, favourable for plant reproduction. Having flowers and seeds makes the daunting job of identifying species accurately considerably easier. However, with over 3,200 species already recorded in the Little Karoo alone, you need to know your stuff! Jan Vlok, a co-author of “Plants of the Klein Karoo”, is one of the few people up to this task.

To put the value of biodiversity refuges, such as Lettas Kraal, into perspective, less than 0,5% of the Succulent Karoo biome is formally conserved. Under the guardianship of conservation-minded individuals such as Johan Roodt, properties such as this one add much-needed resource capital to the scant inventory of protected areas in this region. Riverine Rabbits find refuge here, in veld that is slowly recovering from over 200 years of being heavily impacted by livestock and ostrich farming. In some areas, diversity is lost forever. Lettas Kraal was lucky that much of its biodiversity has remained, and species very sensitive to grazing can still be found. Once abundant, these species are slowly emerging from the midst of thorny bushes and start to grow in the open again, reclaiming their space in this spectacular landscape, amongst the crouching rocks and hidden rabbits.

The biodiversity survey was funded by the Global Environment Facility and managed by the United Nations Development Programme, in partnership with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and Environment, and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.