The Riverine Rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is an incredibly shy creature that only lives in seasonal river vegetation patches in parts of the Karoo. Their remaining habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented, and they face additional threats from hunting, trapping, and being preyed on by feral dogs and cats. The iconic landscape of the Karoo is also imperilled by climate change, mining, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), power lines and the construction of dams.
The EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme is embarking on an exciting new project that could save the Riverine Rabbit, and with it, the Karoo. Despite having worked on this species for more than 15 years, one of the greatest challenges was finding out exactly where these elusive rabbits are living. Once we know where they are, it becomes easier not only to put more effective conservation measures in place, but also to protect their environment.
Jessie the Border Collie is an amazing scent detection dog, who has been trained by her owner, EWT Field Officer Estè Matthew, to sniff out these remarkable rabbits. The aim is for Estè and Jessie to take to the field and map out the areas where Riverine Rabbits occur. As a result, Jessie has been very busy over the last few weeks. With limited scent and a variety of challenges that lie ahead, Jessie has finished her second phase of training. She has completed training at three environmentally dissimilar locations, with a variety of distractions and different types of Riverine Rabbit scent targets. All of these tests were conducted outside in semi-controlled environments. By the end of May, Jessie will start with the final training phase, which includes training in natural field environments.
Jessie can already distinguish between Riverine Rabbits and other lagomorphs (hares and rabbits). This means she indicates on Riverine Rabbit scent, but does not indicate on scents for Scrub Hares (Lepus saxatilis) or Cape Hares (Lepus capensis). She has also made a connection between Riverine Rabbit scent from the two populations that have been identified.
During this epic conservation adventure, Jessie and Estè will have to travel long distances to get to where they need to work, so they’ll need a reliable vehicle, camping equipment, and a specialised GPS collar for Jessie to record her routes and times. An “eye in the sky” with a thermal imaging camera will also greatly help to find bunnies in the thickest parts of the habitat to make Jessie’s job easier. All very exciting, but expensive stuff. If you’d like to help them save the Riverine Rabbit, you can make a donation here, using the reference Riverine Rabbit or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Jessie is sponsored by Champion Petfoods South Africa and K9 Dispatch. Thanks also go to Rand Merchant Bank, Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations, and our generous supporters who have already made donations towards this work.