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Microlivestock - Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future
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close this folder Part III : Rabbits
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Part III : Rabbits


Contrary to popular opinion, the domestic rabbit is a substantial part of the world's meat supply. Annual production of rabbit meat is estimated to be one million metric tons, and the total number of rabbits is approximately 708 million.' However, rabbits are now intensively raised for food only in temperate, mostly industrialized, nations. France, Italy, and Spain, for example, have long consumed rabbit meat; West German production was 20,000 tons each year; Hungary raises rabbits in large numbers (two of its commercial rabbitries have more than 10,000 does each); and the United States raises almost 8.5 million rabbits each year for consumption in homes and restaurants.2

In most developing countries, on the other hand, rabbits are not well known - at least compared with other livestock. But they have great promise there, and in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in interest. For those developing countries where information is available, rabbit meat production almost doubled between 1966 and 1980. For instance, several African countries - among them Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Zambia - now have national rabbit-raising programs. A number of Asian countries - such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam - are also encouraging rabbit farming. And some Latin American countries - Mexico, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, for instance - are actively promoting rabbits for subsistence farmers.

Ghana is also extensively promoting rabbit farming. Although able to produce all the cereals its population needs, it cannot produce enough meat to satisfy demand. In response, the government organized "Operation Feed Yourself." The National Rabbit Project was created



The common hare (Lepus europus) has not been domesticated, but it is nevertheless a major cash crop of several countries. In Argentina, for example, there is a booming, million-dollar enterprise that exports hundreds of thousands of carcasses, mainly to Germany where they are sold as game meat. For Argentine campesinos, many of whom have few sources of livelihood, trapping hares provides a vital income. In New Zealand, too, hare has become an export item.

A closely related species (Lepus capensis) is native to Africa, and perhaps could be "ranched in the same fashion.

Rainforest Rabbit


The forest rabbit, or tapeti (Sylvilagus brasiliensis), is commonly eaten in its native habitat, which extends from southern Mexico to southern Brazil. It occurs in various hot and humid areas of Central and South America and probably within the Amazon Basin itself. Thus, this creature seems a possible candidate for a "tropical rabbit" that can be raised under sweltering conditions, perhaps even in rainforest regions. Although it seems to be heat resistant, it has an especially fine fur.

Little is now known about the tapeti. It is rather secretive and its natural history and even its range are still uncertain. However, its populations appear stable and it is not threatened with extinction. It produces litters of 1 - 5 young after a 44-day gestation, and may bear 4 litters a year. This may seem a lot, but compared with other wild rabbits, the litter size is small and the gestation period long. under this program to provide farmers with breeding stock and practical information on rearing rabbits. (To qualify for the purchase of new breeding stock, would-be rabbit raisers are required to take an intensive three-day course in rabbit husbandry, which is provided at no charge.) With both official and popular support, the rabbit's potential for Ghana has been enhanced through media campaigns complete with radio jingles (examples: "Get the bunny money!" "Grow rabbits - grow children." "Get into the rabbit habit!"), television spots, and large posters. Already, rabbit breeding is included in school curricula and rabbit meat is available in school lunches.

Other countries have mounted similar campaigns. In Mexico, for instance, teachers raise rabbits in rural schools as a way of training students; scores of government officials have taken to breeding rabbits in their homes; and several army units are raising rabbits as mess-hall substitutes for costly beef, pork, and chicken. In Nigeria, farmers can now acquire rabbits from 18 government rabbit-breeding centers, which distribute thousands of animals each year. In Costa Rica, the government has similarly established a series of breeding, distribution, and rabbit-farming training centers. And in El Salvador, the technology of rabbit production is being transferred to farmers via the army.

Although rabbits are ideal microlivestock in a general sense, rabbit rearing has many problems and limitations. Poor management is a common difficulty. Unlike the traditional method of keeping scavenger animals, rabbits have to be contained and cannot be left to find their own food. Raising rabbits requires more skills, more time, and much more effort than raising barnyard chickens or other familiar scavengers.

For all that, rabbits produce more food than scavenging animals; they are less likely to damage crops because they are kept confined; they live exclusively on forage, which tends to grow vigorously in tropical zones; and they generally produce a more valuable product. The rabbit's potential is far from exploited, and rabbit farming will have to increase enormously before its promise for the small farms of the world is realized.

There is, however, an increasing concern over a recent outbreak of an exceptionally virulent viral rabbit disease - hemorrhagic tracheopneumonis, which attacks the lungs and lung tissue, killing 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. The virus, which has ravaged the animals in parts of Asia and Europe, was identified in China five years ago in Angora rabbits imported from Germany. It spread to Korea in 1986, and in early 1988 moved through southern and eastern Europe and spread as far as Egypt. It has also been identified in Mexico. Vaccination may become a future prerequisite of rabbit rearing in many countries.



The order Lagomorpha includes more than 60 small quickmaturing, and rapidly reproducing species. It seems illogical to think that only one is useful as microlivestock. In principle, any rabbit, hare, or pike could be raised in captivity. All are clean, fast growing and rapid breeding. They are opportunistic feeders and can digest fibrous vegetation. Their meat tastes better than chicken and does not carry the stigma of rodent. The animals are small inoffensive, efficient at foraging, and generally tolerant of difficult environments. In theory, at least, they could be raised on vegetation not used by people or by many domesticated livestock.

Species worthy of exploratory research include the following.