This country is at war with 200 million rabbits nibbling their way at great expense across vast tracts of land.
Scientists fear that unless drastic measures are taken, the rabbits--descendants of animals brought from Britain two centuries ago to provide food and clothing for colonial settlers--could help turn some already arid areas into dustbowls.
“A colossal amount of soil damage has been done to inland arid areas due to a combination of droughts and grazing by sheep and rabbits,” Australian government scientist Bernard Fennessy said.
He does not expect the rabbit population to reach the disastrous plague level of 600 million, as it did 40 years ago, but said, “We are facing a big challenge in the arid areas.”
Stopped by Man-Made Disease
The plague was stopped in its burrows by myxomatosis, a man-made disease that in 1951 wiped out about 99% of the rabbit population.
But less-virulent strains of the myxoma virus have developed and rabbits have built up an immunity so that now only 60% die if they catch the disease, scientists say.
Scientists have estimated that 16 rabbits can eat as much as one sheep, so rabbits could be eating as much as nearly 11 million sheep based on a current rabbit population of 170 million.
“If it was economically desirable and physically possible to eradicate all Australia’s rabbits, the increase in agricultural production would be worth $70 million,” Australian government economist Noel Flavel said.
However, pouring millions of dollars into a total eradication program is not viable. “Miss two rabbits and soon we would be back where we started,” Flavel said.
Australia is instead concentrating on a mixture of chemical, biological and germ warfare to control the rabbits, whose zone of occupation stretches across the southern third of the country.
Won’t Venture North
They do not stray much farther north because the hotter climate is unsuitable for their breeding pattern.
Scientists are working on more virulent strains of myxoma virus and examining a type of European rabbit flea which can transmit the virus and survive in drought.
The war against rabbits is currently fought with a poison labeled 1080, and by the destruction of rabbit warrens with dynamite and bulldozers trailing spiked plows.
But in the more remote areas where sheep are far fewer due to drought, rabbits are taking over again because of a dwindling human population and less effective myxomatosis.