Thursday, July 21, 2016

Okunoshima - my part in its downfall (not really)

Just after I finish my posts about Okunoshima, I see that someone has done a study of some kind arguing that the rabbits are being loved to death.  Population explosion!  No vegetation left!  Bloating them with cabbage!
“There are now about 1,000 rabbits on this two-mile island,” DeMello said. “They’ve destroyed the ecosystem.” As a result of the lack of vegetation and the inappropriate food that tourists provide for the animals, the rabbits suffer from a variety of health problems and now have a life expectancy of just two years, DeMello and her fellow researchers found.
The findings were presented on Wednesday at the World Lagomorph Conference in Turlock, California.
Well, I didn't know the word "lagomorph" before - so that's something useful.

Look, not that I can claim expertise on rabbit health, but my recent day and night on the island just makes me skeptical of these claims:
On Rabbit Island, DeMello and her fellow researchers found that the rabbits are fighting over even the least nutritious food provided by tourists. “Of the 728 rabbits that we counted on the island, 28 percent had visible injuries or illnesses,” she reported. The percentage grew to 50 percent in the areas of the island closest to humans. “The more humans interfered, the sicker and more injured the rabbits appeared to be,” she said.
In fact, I had been prepared to see a fair few rabbits with obvious illnesses - some other blogging visitors sometimes commented on seeing sick looking ones - but as I noted here, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the generally healthy appearance of the great majority of the furry inhabitants.  Compared to what we occasionally see jumping across the road in Australia, the Okunoshima ones seemed particularly fine examples of rabbit-hood.

As for "destroying the ecosystem" - another pleasant surprise was to see that the island looks so well vegetated despite supporting hundreds of rabbits.  Perhaps it's because in Australia wild rabbits have such a environment destroying reputation that I would not have been too surprised if the island featured baron sections chock full of holes, with mangy, starving rabbits lolling about desperate for a feed.   Well, OK, sometimes they are very keen on a feed, but while there are a rabbit divots on the lawn in front of the hotel, it's not the scene of rabbit devastation an Australian might expect, at all.

And did I kill any by feeding them cabbage?:
The tourists, she said, often come bearing cabbage, one of the cheapest vegetables in Japan and a big part of the Japanese diet. Cabbage is a bad food choice for rabbits, as it causes dangerous and potentially deadly bloat. It is also low in fiber, something rabbits require for what DeMello called their “very particular digestive system.”
Hmm.  It's odd, then that there seem to be a few million websites on Google - including from vets - saying that pet rabbits can be fed cabbage, some (but not all) mentioning that some rabbits might get bloat and be a bit cautious in introducing it.

There may well be an element of truth in this report - I wouldn't be surprised if increased tourists numbers has led to a slight population increase - but even then, I know that on a weekday in July, the island was hardly teaming with humans.  (Access being available only by a ferry, there will always be a natural limit on the number of people there each day.) 

Overall, this report just smacks too much of environmental doomsaying from a well intentioned, but exaggerating, animal welfare advocate.  A bit like the American pro-koala advocate years ago who I heard (or read) saying that Australians were hearing the wailing of treeless, dying koalas at night.

The situation for the rabbits and the island may not be ideal, but it doesn't look to me to be as bad as these people claim.

Update:  I see from this website that most wild rabbits actually live less than a year (!), although pet ones can last 8 to 10.   If the Okunoshima ones live for 2, they're doing better than average, although I would have guessed they would get closer to the pet rabbit age.   There's lots of interesting wild rabbit facts on that website, incidentally.

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