December 2013 Pictures: Nkosinathi Moyo The critically endangered Riverine Rabbit that was found recently in CapeNature's Anysberg nature reserve near Laingsburg

Cape Town - The critically endangered riverine rabbit – one of South Africa’s 10 most endangered mammals – has taken a short hop away from the precipice of extinction, following the recent discovery of a new population in CapeNature’s Anysberg Nature Reserve near Laingsburg.

It is the first population of the species to have been found in any formal protected area anywhere in the country.

Until now it has been known only on privately owned farmland and private reserves where landowners have been working with conservation authorities and non-government groups to ensure their survival. About two-thirds of its natural habitat has already been destroyed.

The announcement of the discovery was made by “excited” conservation partners CapeNature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and followed a search at Anysberg by reserve manager Marius Brand, colleague Corné Claassen, CapeNature’s conservation service manager and reserve staff on the night of December 5.

They captured a young riverine rabbit – proof it is successfully reproducing in this area. After taking genetic samples, the rabbit was released.

Claassen said Brand and some of his staff had previously done a day sweep of the western section of the reserve that has good habitat for the rabbits.

“Two rabbits popped out… but they weren’t 100 percent sure of their identification, so we followed that up with a night drive. We used a vehicle with two spotlights on the back, one on each side, and with six guys on each side of the vehicle and also with spotlights about five to 10m apart. The idea was to flush out anything in the area.”

The drive started at 9pm and just after 11pm the young rabbit was found, and was caught by hand.

They took a small clipping of tissue from its ear and some fur for DNA analysis before letting him go.

“He was just a few kilometres from a private farm where we’ve been aware of a population for the past two or three years. He appeared to have been following the (dry) river course from this farm, so that also opens up a whole lot of other opportunities (to find other riverine rabbits).”

Christy Bragg, manager of the Drylands Conservation Programme of the trust – the organisation has done much work on the rabbit populations known from the Nama Karoo area, said:

“We and CapeNature have been working closely together in the Western Cape to learn more about this iconic Karoo species and it’s wonderful to find these elusive rabbits in new territory.”

l Anysberg, in the Klein Karoo south-east of Laingsburg, is just over 81 000 hectares and was established in 1987 to conserve the local veld type and to eventually reintroduce game species that historically occurred in this region. - Cape Argus