How Bunny Rabbits Took Over Australia — And What The Government Is Doing About It

Published December 31, 2016
Updated April 18, 2017
Published December 31, 2016
Updated April 18, 2017

Thanks to one bored 19th century hunter, Australia has a massive rabbit problem.

English European Rabbit

David Iliff/Wikimedia Commons

In Queensland, Australia, it’s illegal to own a pet rabbit unless you’re a magician. Why? Because for the past 150 years, rabbits have caused immense ecological damage to Australia.

Oz’s temperate conditions — general lack of seasons and little cold — and huge swaths of natural low vegetation make for an ideal rabbit home, so much so that the perennially-breeding creatures destroyed two million acres of floral lands in Victoria before they were even spotted in another state.

Currently, more than 200 million rabbits inhabit 2.5 million square miles of Australia. If that sounds like a lot, consider the fact that there used to be three times as many rabbits in the great down under.

Read on to learn how this invasive creature got to the island — and what Australian authorities are doing to curtail a massive ecological disaster.

A Brief History Of Rabbits In Australia

Stevenson Wire Fence

Wikimedia CommonsThe critical response to erect a rabbit-proof fence between New South Wales and Queensland, c. 1884:
Mr Stevenson, M.L.A., suggested that the Government should erect a wire fence along our New South Wales border in order to check the coming invasion of rabbits. The artist depicts the probable use the bunnies would make of the fence.

Rabbits have set up shop in Australia since the late 18th century, when the First Fleet — 11 ships carrying convicts that founded the first European settlement in Australia — brought them along for food in 1788.

In the 1840s, rabbit-keeping was a common practice among colonists, with bunny rabbit thefts showing up in court records. Rabbits became part of a colonist’s diet and farmers kept them trapped together with stone enclosures.

Unfortunately, they would soon spread across the country.

The story goes that a landowner by the name of Thomas Austin imported 24 European rabbits from England and released them into the wild for hunting purposes in October 1859.

Austin had been an avid hunter when he lived in England, and when he moved to Australia, he was disappointed that he didn’t have anything to kill for sport. So he asked his English nephew to send 12 gray rabbits, five hares, 72 partridges and some sparrows in hopes of creating a local population.

Austin’s nephew couldn’t find enough gray rabbits to fulfill his uncle’s request, so he sent a couple domestic rabbits to make up for it. Some biologists believe this is why the rabbit population exploded — a hybrid rabbit suited to Australian conditions formed when the two distinct types interbred.

And hunting he found. Within ten years of Austin releasing the rabbits into the wild, the population became so vast that Australians could kill two million — annually — without significantly affecting their numbers whatsoever.

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