This year we give Easter egg hunts a miss and embark on a search of a different kind. Mission: to spot some of South Africa’s adorable rabbit and hare species in the wild. By Arnold Ras
Make the coming Easter Weekend, from 14 to 17 April, fun for young and old. While spending time at one of the Wild Card parks and reserves, see if you can correctly identify South Africa’s rabbits and hares. A quick eye and attention to detail are key: some of them are lightning fast, and others exceptionally shy.
With its long ears, big eyes and strong hind legs, the Cape hare is built to outwit its enemies. Some say the cheetah is the only predator that can outrun the Cape hare. Now that’s one fast moving ball of fur! Females are heavier than males and they are mostly active from dusk till dawn, so you’ll need a good torch to spot them. Want to hear something fascinating? When a predator pursues a hare, the hare will run straight until the predator is almost on its tail. Only then will the hare dodge sideways to give its enemy the slip.
Where to get lucky: Karoo National Park
How do you tell the difference between a Cape hare and scrub hare? The scrub hare’s pure white underparts and larger size are a sure giveaway. Don’t get your hopes up to spot one of these during broad daylight – they only make their appearance at sunset. The babies of scrub hares, called leverets, are often killed by African wild cats and black-backed jackals. A scrub hare’s life expectancy is around seven years and they are found in most parts of South Africa. When threatened, the scrub hare will make a run for it with a sharp zig-zag course – they can reach up to 70km/h.
Where to get lucky: Addo Elephant National Park
Smith’s red rock rabbit
As the smallest of the red rock rabbit species found in South Africa, Smith’s red rock rabbits are mostly active during the night. Although park and reserve visitors might see them foraging alone, these salt-and-pepper fur balls are usually part of a small group that shares a communal manure heap. They are also found in Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia. The species adores sprouting grasses, but they also have a taste for herbs. Females give birth to one or two young, called kittens, in summer. That dark red tail is a work of art.
Where to get lucky: Augrabies Falls National Park
Jameson’s red rock rabbit
Did you know that rock rabbits’ tails and feet are more reddish-brown than those of hares, which are white with a black top? As its name suggests, Jameson’s red rock rabbit lives among rocky areas and stony hills – they never dwell far from their home range. Because they prefer rocks as habitation, it’s very difficult to track their spoor. They can be distinguished from other rock rabbits by their large and bushy tails – tails can grow up to 13,5cm in length. What a beautiful creature.
Where to get lucky: Marakele National Park
One of South Africa’s most threatened mammals, the critically endangered riverine rabbit is confined to river courses in the Karoo. They are very rare, nocturnal and solitary. Their diets include green grass in summer months and leaves of shrubs during the winter. But why are they so threatened? Because these beauties cannot run very fast, they can easily be hunted with dogs. Loss of habitat, like the degradation of riverbanks, is also a threat to their survival. Spotting a riverine rabbit is easier said than done – many suggest only a few hundred are left in the wild. This incredibly handsome rabbit species lives for only about three years.
Where to get lucky: Anysberg Nature Reserve
What are the differences between hares and rabbits?
- Hares are usually bigger than rabbits, with longer hind legs and longer ears.
- Rabbits usually live below ground in burrows while hares live in scrapes on the ground.
- The young of hares (leverets) are born with fur and sight, and can move on their own shortly afterwards. Rabbit babies (kittens) are blind, hairless and helpless at birth.
Sources: Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa. A Field Guide. Revised and updated by Peter Apps; Wild Ways. Peter Apps; Mammals of Southern African and their Tracks & Signs. Lee Gutteridge, Louis Liebenberg; The Mammal Guide of Southern Africa. Burger Cillié; Wildlife of Southern Africa. Edited by Vincent Carruthers.