Rabbits revealed

I came to Southeast Asia thinking that I would study tigers. Instead I study tiger rabbits. If you had told me four years ago that the focus of my work, indeed my obsession, would be furry fluff balls that could fit in my hand, I would have thought you were crazy. And yet that is exactly what has happened. Of course, the cynical perspective would be that I’ve taken to striped rabbits because I didn’t find the other animals that drew me to Vietnam: tiger are long gone, having disappeared from these forests years ago, and longtime readers will know that, despite my best efforts, I’ve never caught up with Saola. And so on particularly black days I find myself asking: Have I taken to striped rabbits by way of default? It’s possible. But even if that is the case, I’m glad, in a way, that I’ve been led down this path. Because it would be difficult to think of a species in this region as fascinating—and overlooked—as the Annamite striped rabbit.

One reason this species is so fascinating is because it is new: not in the evolutionary sense of the word, but to the scientific world. The species was only revealed to the outside world in the mid-90s, when the biologist Rob Timmins came across specimens in a market in rural Laos. The fact that such a brilliantly-patterned mammal went unknown to the outside world for so long is remarkable. There are several explanations for this, but the simplest is that, like all all animals in the heavily-hunted and dense jungles of Vietnam and Laos, the Annamite striped rabbit is elusive. It’s difficult to find an animal that doesn’t want to be found. And so for a long time this striped shadow remained in the shadows. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue, because camera traps, those unblinking eyes in the forest, have proven adept “catching” this species. Indeed, our camera trapping work in central Vietnam has given us an unprecedented glimpse into the world of this secretive lagomorph. Getting so many photos of Annamite striped rabbit has been hands-down the more exciting, and unexpected, finding of our research.

This isn’t to say that assembling the puzzle pieces (camera trap photos) into a coherent picture is going to be easy. Indeed, every picture, or non-picture, seems to raise more questions than answers. The most beguiling question, to me, deals with why striped rabbits are found in some areas and not others, and to what extent this is related to habitat preferences or hunting pressure. In a region where past and ongoing poaching has hammered forests with varying levels of intensity, teasing apart the effects of habitat and hunting on the distribution of any species is a daunting task. But it is one of the problems that I look forward most to tackling, because understanding how susceptible Annamite striped rabbit are to poaching will be a major factor in assessing the conservation status of this species. At the moment, the Annamite striped rabbit is listed as Data Deficient under the IUCN Red List, which is a rather sophisticated way of saying we have no idea of its conservation status, whether it’s rare or common, in trouble or not. And so every time we check one of our cameras in the forest and get a photo of striped rabbit, I am overjoyed, because we have one more piece of information that will take us one step closer to piecing together the hidden world of this species.

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Annamite striped rabbit caught on camera
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Second shot

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