Encounter with a striped shadow

The Annamite striped rabbit is a jungle ghost: it is seldom seen in the wild and this elusiveness is one reason biologists know virtually nothing about the species. To catch a fleeting glimpse of a striped rabbit is the dream of every biologist working in this region. The idea of actually seeing a striped rabbit up close is verging on fantasy: a potentially dangerous daydream that I, for one, try not to think about because I’ve never wanted to get my hopes up. Dreams of striped rabbits close encounters are a surefire way for jungle-wandering naturalists to be let down. Indeed, seeing one up close would seem to be nothing short of a minor miracle. And yet that is exactly what happened to researcher Sarah Woodfin, a graduate student at East Anglia University. Sarah came to Vietnam this summer to study striped rabbits. Specifically, she wanted to conduct research on the species habitat, about which biologists know very little. Her fieldwork took place deep in the forests of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. Sarah never imagined that she would actually see this striped shadow. And yet not only did Sarah and her team see a striped rabbit, but they actually caught and held one. Let me say that again. Slowly. She was able to hold an Annamite striped rabbit.

Annamite striped rabbit
Annamite striped rabbit

Sarah and her team were walking along a small stream at night when they saw a striped rabbit hopping along the bank nibbling on vegetation. One of the Vietnamese team members managed to catch the rabbit and bring it back to camp. Sarah said that her first feeling was one of complete shock. She immediately recognized the bundle of fur as a striped rabbit, the ghost she had traveled more than 8,000 miles to study. In camp, Sarah and her team members were able to take video, photos, and measurements of the animal. And just as importantly she was able to admire this rare rabbit for its stunning beauty. In her own words, Sarah laconically described it as “very handsome, with dark stripes against a pale gold background and a red rump.” And in a very straightforward manner that just about sums it up. But I wonder now if Sarah came to the same conclusion I did: that it’s tempting to go on and on describing the haunting magnificence of this tiger-looking rabbit, but that all the purple prose in the world would be inadequate to capture the splendor of the species. After several minutes of holding and studying the animal, the team set it free. It disappeared into the night and existed only on film and in their memories. And with that Sarah Woodfin became the first biologist to have actually held a live Annamite striped rabbit. She is a lucky person indeed. The Lagomorph Gods must have been smiling on her that day.

The striped rabbit encounter not only gave Sarah an intimate glimpse into the secret world of an elusive species, but has also provided biologists with valuable data that will help us understand the ecology of this rare Annamite endemic. And any new information we get is important: with hunting levels at all-time highs in the region, the days of the striped rabbit, I am afraid, are numbered. In years rather than centuries or decades. To formulate an effective conservation plan for the species biologists need to understand its basic ecology. And the data that Sarah collected takes us one step closer to that goal.

Annamite striped rabbit
Sarah with the Annamite striped rabbit

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