The riverine rabbit can reach approximately 52 cm in size and has large ears. It has a distinguishing dark brown band running along the side of the lower jaw upwards to the bottom of the ears. The upper parts are a grizzled drab grey while the sides are slightly darker and rufous where it blends with the dense grey hair on the underside. The eyes are encircled with white rings with dark elongated patches above these. The fringed inner margins of the long ears are covered with white hair, the outer margins with short buffy hair and the tips are covered with short black hair. The hair on the nape of the neck is slightly shorter and is a rich rufous colour. The grey-brown tail is short and fluffy, but darker towards the tip.
Riverine rabbits are very habitat-specific and are found in dense patches of riverine bush along seasonal rivers of the semi-arid central Karoo. They are the only indigenous burrowing rabbit in Africa and are dependent on deep and soft alluvial soils. To the south of the escarpment they are found in areas with sparse vegetation near seasonal rivers in both Succulent Karoo and Renosterveld vegetation.
This rare, nocturnal and often solitary species can jump very well when alarmed. They feed on shrubs and young grasses. They obtain their Vitamin B by eating their day droppings which are wetter and softer than the dry droppings that form by night. They are dependent on deep soft alluvial soils to construct stable breeding stops. The males mate with more than one female and their home range varies between 12 and 20 ha. A litter of one, rarely two, blind hairless rabbits are born between August and May. Their lifespan in the wild is not more than four years.
Most of their distribution range falls outside the Western Cape Province above the escarpment of the Nuweveld mountains in the semi- arid Central Karoo. More populations of riverine rabbit have recently been discovered south of the escarpment in the districts of Touwsriver, Montagu and Barrydale, as well as at Klaarstroom, immediately north of Meiringspoort.
(Records from Friedmann and Daly (2004) and the CapeNature biodiversity database).
Not long after its discovery in 1902, the riverine rabbit was known as the ‘pondhaas’ because Captain G.C. Shortridge, the curator of the Kaffrarian Museum in King William’s Town, offered a pound for each rabbit brought to him.
There is no state-owned land protecting the riverine rabbit and its habitat and already two-thirds of its original habitat has been destroyed. Most known habitat occurs on private land.
Threats to the riverine rabbit and its habitat are as follows:
- The main threat is habitat destruction through cultivation and extensive livestock grazing.
- Predation by domestic dogs.
- Potential catastrophic events such as flooding, global climate change, fire and disease.
- Road kills.
- Lack of general awareness about and knowledge of the species. Inbreeding due to low population numbers.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust has established a Riverine Rabbit Programme to manage and coordinate the Riverine Rabbit Conservation Project, to maintain close relations with landowners and conservation authorities and to ensure the survival of the riverine rabbit and its habitat.
Further initiatives are:
- The establishment of statutory conservation areas in riverine rabbit habitats.
- The establishment of more private conservation areas such as conservancies and conservation stewardship sites.
- Collation of existing data and knowledge. Control of dog predation on farms. Habitat rehabilitation.
The recent discovery of the riverine rabbit in the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and Vaalkloof Private Nature Reserve are positive signs for the survival of this species.