By Environment & Science Writer

Robben Island Museum's new management team has decided to deal decisively with the European rabbit catastrophe devastating the island ecology.

The popular tourist attraction will be closed for two weeks in November when most of the estimated 10 000 European rabbits on the island will be culled - partly to avoid their possibly "harrowing" death later in the summer through starvation and lack of water.

The rabbit population has reached "plague proportions", according to one observer, and has severely damaged the island's natural vegetation after the previous management regime allowed rabbit numbers to soar virtually unchecked.

An unspecified small number of rabbits will be kept on the island, a World Heritage Site, for historical reasons, as these animals were first introduced by European sailors in the 17th century for food.

The island's management says a "sustainable" population will be maintained after the cull and kept in check in the long term through a sterilisation programme.

Because many of the rabbits have become quite tame through feeding over the past months, they are likely to be caught quite easily and will be individually euthanased. But those not able to be caught will probably end up being shot.

The local branch of the SPCA, which has been closely involved in the decision, says a cull and sterilisation programme is "the most humane and rational approach".

SPCA chief executive Allan Perrins said the SPCA had not found it easy to support the cull: "We committed ourselves to finding the most humane and conservation-worthy solution and had hoped it would be a non-lethal one, but this is unfortunately not possible."

The SPCA would work closely with island staff to ensure the rabbit removal was done "in the most humane way possible".

"We will ensure that animals are handled in a manner to limit stress and that rabbit warrens are also checked to ensure that offspring are not abandoned," Perrins said.

The island's two-week closure, from November 1 to 16, will also be used to do essential maintenance work that will include repairing and replacing tourist buses, and refurbishing the island's vessels.

Announcing the cull on Tuesday, interim chief executive Seelan Naidoo described the decision as "very difficult".

"However, there are no other alternatives available to restore ecological balance on Robben Island and to save important heritage sites from further degradation," he said.

Work would be done by Robben Island Museum staff in partnership with veterinary experts from the SPCA, the State Vet and other qualified practitioners and volunteers.

Naidoo said the decision to take "immediate action to avert an ecological crisis on the Island as a result of rabbit overpopulation" had followed an intensive consultation process with, among others, animal welfare experts, animal rights groups, vets and nature conservation officials.

While the precise number of rabbits was not known, the current population was so large that it threatened to permanently damage the island's sensitive vegetation and also posed a serious threat to other fauna species, both alien and indigenous.

"They also threaten historical buildings and heritage sites on the island.

"Unchecked, the large number of rabbits in an environment without much natural water will result in the harrowing death of many rabbits through starvation and thirst over the coming dry season."