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IIn the middle of South Africa’s semi-arid Karoo is found one of the world’s most vanishingly rare mammals: the riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis).
There are thought to be only a few hundred left, which is why this handsome little creature with its distinctive matinee idol ‘moustache’, white-ringed eyes and fluffy feet is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Riverine rabbits are found nowhere except in South Africa’s Karoo region, and as their name indicates, their preferred habitat is along the dry riverbeds of this arid region. They rely on the deep, silty soils for burrowing, and the river-edge plants, which remain greener for longer, even when the rivers are completely dry. Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to the species’ survival as many riverbanks in this area have been degraded by grazing and crops.
It has always been an elusive animal, first described for science in 1902 by a British trooper recuperating at the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) field hospital at Deelfontein in what is now the Free State. In the 1940s, the Kaffrarian Museum in King William’s Town offered a pound per specimen – which is why the riverine rabbit is still sometimes called the pondhaas, which means 'pound rabbit' in Afrikaans.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Programme is based in the tiny Karoo town of Loxton, and works closely with local farmers to save the rabbit, including rehabilitating degraded riverbanks with suitable plants.
The riverine rabbit is nocturnal. It lies up in shallow scrapes under bushes during the day, and sallies out at night to hunt for its favourite buchu and inkbush leaves and flowers. Riverine rabbits only live for about three years, and females mostly have about four babies in their lifetimes, all born in burrows lined with fur and leaves.
With so few riverine rabbits, it’s difficult to get a good understanding of their behaviour and habits. The Endangered Wildlife Trust has observed them through camera traps, activated by motion. One of the first things the researchers learned was that these nocturnal creatures are often still out in the very early morning, especially in winter.
Riverine rabbits are obviously difficult to see. Even fieldworkers can go for years without actually encountering one. So it was a real thrill for conservationists in 2006 when the privately-owned Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, only three hours’ drive from Cape Town, found its 54 000 hectares were home to several riverine rabbits.
The management at this private reserve set up a monitoring programme that recently celebrated its 101st riverine rabbit sighting.
The riverine rabbit’s range has been found to stretch far further south, in recent years, than its ‘traditional’ range around the towns of Williston, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Victoria West and Loxton in the dry Karoo region.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)41 509 3000
Jakhalsdans Game Farm and Guesthouse (near Loxton)
Nicola & Linda van der Westhuizen
Tel: +27 (0)82 875 3339
Karoo Cottage (Loxton)
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3091
Four Seasons Guesthouse (Loxton)
Tel: +027 72 377 0602
How to get there
One of the best place to see the riverine rabbit (although given its numbers, there are no guarantees) is at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. From Cape Town, head for Paarl, go through the Huguenot Tunnel to Worcester and from there, take the Robertson road. After nearby Ashton, you’ll be on the fabled R62 road. Head through the pretty town of Montagu and on for another 43km, when you’ll see the Sanbona gate. Alternately, there are several farmstays in and around Loxton that offer fair chances of seeing riverine rabbits – including Dunedin Farm and Jakhalsdans (see contact details listed). If you’d like to find out more about the riverine rabbit, visit the Endangered Wildlife Trust's offices in Loxton, a little town between Carnarvon and Beaufort West. The offices are close to the church (which is impossible to miss). Loxton is about six hours’ drive from Cape Town. Take the N1 north and at Beaufort West, take the turn towards Loxton on the Carnarvon road.
Best time to visit
Karoo winters (May through August) can be brutally cold, but these are usually the best times to see nocturnal animals. They tend to loiter about until the sun is up, soaking in a bit of warmth before retiring for the day
Things to do
The Karoo provides endless options for outdoor activities and adventures. Sanbona offers game drives, bird watching, stargazing and boat safaris on the Bellair Dam.
What to pack
Even if you go in the height of summer, take along something warm to wear. Temperatures sink dramatically in any desert at night, and the Karoo is no exception. You will need heavy-duty warm clothes during winter. A good sunblock and hat and light clothes are essential in summer.
Where to stay
There are a number of accommodation options in and around Loxton. See the contact details listed.
What to eat
Experience traditional Karoo cooking at the Loxton Lodge or visit one of the many farm stalls in the area.