Pets or pests, rabbits hold a special place in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike in most western civilisations. Despite his 70 years of age, Bugs Bunny is still the favourite, followed by the Easter Bunny, the White Rabbit and the March Hare of Alice in Wonderland and then comes Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. There are rabbit gods according to Aztec mythology. The rabbit is the fourth sign in the Chinese zodiac. Americans think a rabbit’s foot brings good luck. Whereas the Japanese continue to perpetuate the myth that rabbits live on the moon and make mochi, a popular rice cake made of mashed sticky rice.
The relatively recent history of rabbits in Australia began with Thomas Austin, an Englishman who settled in Victoria after arriving in Hobart Town in 1831. He was a member of the Acclimatisation Society whose aim was to enrich the local fauna with animals and plants from around the world. He enjoyed hunting and regretted that there were no wild rabbits in Australia. The only rabbits in those early days were domestic rabbits that had been brought to the British colony with the first fleet in 1788. In October 1859, Thomas Austin’s nephew sent him 24 rabbits, 5 hares, 72 partridges and some sparrows that he immediately let loose in the countryside. Several farmers followed suit and freed some of their domestic rabbits.
By 1950 those initial 24 rabbits had become 600 million. Myxomatosis brought the population down to about 100 million. It has since climbed back up to about 300 million as the rabbits gradually developed genetic resistance. That is still a large number compared to the 100 million sheep, 60 million kangaroos, 23 million cattle and 22 million human beings in the country. There are more rabbits than all the rest of us combined. That designates rabbits as the greatest pest in Australia, the term “pest” having derived from the Latin word pestis plague.
That, however, does not mean that rabbits are the principal cause of damage to the ecosystem. Human activity causes far more damage than copulating rabbits could ever achieve.
Though it has been a rather long and tedious process, a general consensus has now been established within the international scientific community that the world is heading for a major ecological meltdown due to human activity. The average Australian has been identified as causing most of the damage, followed, not surprisingly, by the average American. In terms of total greenhouse gas production, Australia arrives in seventh place, just behind the US, China, Russia, India, Japan and Germany. Rabbits could never have achieved that. They simply do not operate on the same scale.
Not only are we already the worst polluters in the world, but we are also doing our best to make matters even worse by expanding our coal and methane gas production in prime farming territory through the development of open-cut coal mines, additional coal and gas-fired power stations and petrochemical plants. The impact on our agricultural environment should be sufficiently severe to keep us running well ahead of the pack as chief polluters for many years to come. The areas of predilection for this heavy industrial development are the Darling Downs and the Murray Darling Basin in Southern Queensland and New South Wales.
The coal and gas reserves were a windfall our governments could not resist exploiting to help boost our economies irrespective of the fact that the reserves are located on prime farmland and despite the Prime Minister’s commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to maintain greenhouse gas emissions at (or below) 108 per cent of our 1990 emission levels for each year from 2008 to 2012. The perspective of cashing in on lucrative royalties under mining licensing agreements was probably an additional incentive. Whatever the reasons, the deliberate aggravation of damage already caused to the ecosystem is morally reprehensible to say the least. Not only is it inconsistent with current renewable energy development trends and proclaimed greenhouse gas reduction targets, it also happens to be the type of offence specifically targeted by the emerging legal and judicial concept of "Crime against Nature".
Needless to say, the Crime against Nature referred to here has nothing to do with the law of that name in several American States relating to certain so-called “unnatural” sexual acts. The legal and judicial concept that is evoked here refers to environmental and ecological crime. Though it does not exist today, per se, it has existed under various forms in the past.
In an interesting article published in 2003 by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., under the title Crimes against Nature, he notes: “Clean-air laws in England, passed in the fourteenth century, made it a capital offense to burn coal in London, and violators were executed for the crime”. There can be little doubt that the concept of "Crime against Nature" will find its way into national and international law at some point in time, probably in the not too distant future. The struggle for survival of life on earth is a powerful avalanche that is gathering momentum and will sweep away everything in its path.
In this context, it is unlikely that inhumane methods of controlling the rabbit population will continue to be tolerated. The spreading of poisons, viruses and other biological agents throughout the countryside on the back of mosquitoes and fleas etc., could well come under challenge by the general public. What is considered acceptable today may not be tolerated tomorrow. Greater public awareness of the damage caused to the ecosystem by human activity will inevitably reduce the autonomy of today’s decision makers. There can be no doubt that tolerance levels will be taking a steep dive wherever biosecurity is at risk.
The recent decision of the Queensland Government to disband the Darling Downs - Moreton Rabbit Board is at complete odds with this evolution. The Board services 555km of rabbit proof fence protecting 28,000 sq km of prime farm land in Southern Queensland. It is the last remaining rabbit proof fence in the country that continues to be serviced and has been, without interruption, since its erection 116 years ago. The servicing costs are quite modest compared to the millions of dollars saved annually for the rural community, private and public parks and gardens, sports facilities, building foundations, cemeteries and scenic tourist sites.
No explanation has been forthcoming as to why the decision was taken to disband the Board completely and discard its 12 highly valuable, experienced employees. The immediate reaction of all eight local authorities within the rabbit free zone was an outright refusal to take over responsibility from the Board for maintaining the rabbit proof fence and controlling rabbits in their area. Apparently the government is practicing mushroom management: open the door, shovel in an obnoxious mixture of coal and rabbits, close the door and wait for the mushrooms to grow.
Or perhaps it was to mark the 150th anniversary of the release of those 24 rabbits by Thomas Austin in October 1859 that the government decided in October 2009 to abandon the fence and allow the 300 million jubilant descendents of those pioneering rabbits to run free. Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run …