You are here10/03/08 : Enderby Island Rabbit - A Remarkable Story : Bob Whitman

10/03/08 : Enderby Island Rabbit - A Remarkable Story : Bob Whitman

By Anonymous - Posted on 10 March 2008

While researching early modes of rabbit keeping on February 2nd 2003, I came across a titbit of information that caught my fancy. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became, as the story unfolded before my eyes. Be prepared to take a remarkable journey of hope, survival, fortitude, lifesaving, rescue, destruction and preservation. This story is like no other in the world of domestic rabbits.

You are all aware of the history of the Auckland Islands, so there is no need to dwell on its discovery. Whales were plentiful in the waters that surrounded the Auckland's and the shores would prove to be rich with sea lions, but at the same time shipwrecks were abundant in the rough and dangerous waters around these six volcanic islands. Castaways would attempt to survive for weeks and months, in hopes of a rescue ship finding them. Back in Australia, the Acclimatization Society of Victoria was formed in 1861, with the aim of introducing exotic plants and animals to suitable parts of the colony and to procure animals from Great Britain and other countries. Shortly after the organization was founded, a gift of 4 silver-grey rabbits was presented to the Society in 1864.

In a letter dated 3 October, 1865 Jas. G. Francis, Commissioner of Trade and Customs advised Commander William Henry Norman, of the H.M.C.S. VICTORIA I to search the Auckland Islands for possible persons in distress and 'With the view of making provisions, to a certain extent, for any persons who may hereafter be wrecked or in distress upon these islands, the Acclimatization Society have put on board a number of animals, which will be good enough to let loose on the island." There would be 12 rabbits on board ship that set sail Wednesday, October 4, 1865. It is here that I must mention, through a complete chance of luck I was able to locate Mrs. Margaret Levin, of Queensland, Australia who is the great-great-granddaughter of Com. Norman.- She became fascinated with my research project and has provided pictures of the ship, the commander, her crew and best of all, copies of the journal and logbooks of this historic voyage. It should be noted that Margaret was also a rabbit breeder while living in Victoria.

From Com. Norman's Journals. "Saturday, 14th. - No traces of pigs or other animals being observed near here; landed four goats, sent by the Acclimatization Society. Some small patches of English grass growing about the old settlement. Later in the day, one of the men reported having seen a dog. This deterred me from landing some rabbits and fowls as I had intended." There is an error in his journal as he write Monday. 18th and this would have actually been Wednesday. 18th "At 4:30 a.m. started for Enderby Island, and anchored in the sandy bay referred to yesterday, at 5 a.m. Sent on shore ten goats and twelve rabbit; these at once took to the English grass, on which I have no doubt they will thrive well. Weighed again at 7:30a.m., and steamed slowly round the island." The H.M.S.C. VICTORIA I returned to its home port, Hobson's Bay, at 1:30 p.m. Monday, November 27, 1865, having found no castaways. Now it should be noted that this was not the first time that rabbits were let released on Enderby Island. The British "EREBUS" and "TERROR" expedition, of Sir James Clark Ross. These rabbits were killed off by the Maoris who did not leave the island until March 1856.

Enderby Island is 1,700 acres in size, cold, windy and with high humidity. Except for the coastal cliffs and rocks, along with a few acres of sand hills, the island is pretty much covered with a dense blanket of peat. The 12 rabbits would thrive and multiply, burrowing into the sandy hillsides and dry peat. In 1867, the survivors of the GENERAL GRANT caught many rabbits, as did the survivors of the DERRY CASTLE in March of 1887.
During the next 100 years, the rabbits of Enderby would be up and down in population. In 1874, H.M.S. BLANCHE found the island "over-run with black rabbits". 1886 in a report to the Royal Society of Victoria it was reported that the rabbits were fast dying out or rather starved out, having eaten most all the grass and reverting to thickly set mossy plants. By 1894 the HINEMOA reported "rabbits swarm, and greatly reduce the value of the pasturage ... one of the party shot over twenty in the course of short excursion.

25 head of cattle and many rabbits were reported by Oliver in 1927. In 1932 the pastoral lease of the island ended and in 1934 the New Zealand (NZ) government made the island a reserve for the preservation of native flora and fauna.

The NZ National Parks and Reserves Authority approved the Auckland Island Management Plan on January 12, 1987 to eliminate all man introduced animals from the islands. A study by B.W. Glentworth in 1991, showed a rabbit population of between 5,000 to 6,000 rabbits. Rabbits were destroying that native vegetation at an alarming rate and playing havoc with the sea lion pup population. The numerous rabbit burrows along Sandy Bay is an important breeding ground for this threatened sea lion species, as pups would become trapped in the burrows and die.

The Canterbury Chapter of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of NZ (RBCSNZ), having heard of the rabbit's eradication plan, began setting up a project to rescue a breeding population of the Enderby Island Rabbit through the dedicated efforts of Mrs. Catreona Kelly as Project Manager. Michael Willis and Dr. Dave Matheson, D.V.M. of the Rare Breeds Society along with Wayne Costello and Trevor Tidy from the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) would travel on board the naval diving ship MANAWANUI, arriving on Enderby on Tuesday 15, September, 1992 at 11 :30 p. m .. A permit was secured to trap 50 rabbits in just a very few days. Various modes of trapping were used, baffle traps and funnel nets at the warren entrances, soft-jaw leg hold traps, proved to be of little use, but 200 meters of wing netting would be the most successful. Rabbits would be trapped from four locations, which were given warren names; Enderby, Stella, Rata and Base. By September 19th, 50 rabbits had been captured, 15 does (females) and 35 bucks (males). Dive teams ferried the rabbits on inflatable Zodiacs back to the main ship in rather difficult swell conditions. Of special note, it was during this recovery, that the last two surviving members of the Enderby Island cattle breed were discovered. The cow, named lady and her calf, which soon died would make world history, as Lady is the largest mammal ever cloned, first cow cloned to have calve, and the first attempt at cloning to save a rare breed, well it's a story all to its own. The 49 rabbits (one died of a back injury) would arrive at Somes Island in Wellington Harbor on September 25th at 6 p.m. to begin a one-month quarantine period, which ended on October 28, 1992. There would be 3 kits (young) born during this period. Each rabbit was carefully inspected, handled, identified with an ear tag and given a permanent tattoo. Rabbits were split into three different destination groups, one for Wairarapa, and another for New Plymouth and the rest for Christchurch. All rabbits born were carefully recorded in the stud book by Mrs. Kelly. All rabbits were the property of the D.O.C. however ten dedicated caregivers would be entrusted with the rabbits, under contract, with the RBCSNZ. In 1998 private ownership of the Enderby Island rabbits would begin as the numbers of rabbits increased.

The eradication program took place from February 9 through May 8, 1993 with a team of four people and a specially trained rabbit-tracking dog named Boss. The rabbits would be killed with a green dyed cereal pellet containing Brodifacoum, which was sowed using a helicopter. The last Enderby Island rabbit would be caught and destroyed on April 12, 1993 ending a 127 year period of natural selection.

Through the determined and dedicated efforts to keep the breed alive Sitereh and Chris Schouten of Nature's Pace near Christchurch, the Enderby Island rabbit was given breed status by the Rabbit Council of New Zealand in April, 2002 when it was accepted into their book of Standards. It should also be noted that Sitereh, is now the official recorded keeper of all Enderbys.

Enderby Island rabbits are the world's rarest breed of rabbit, with less than 100 animals in existence. Most are black, but there are 7 known cream colored ones and even fewer blues. The breed evolved from the English Silver Greys, and not the Champagne de Argente as previously reported in various papers and scientific journals. This author has been a collector of old rabbit books for 30 years. In my research some of the earliest works state that the Silver came from Siam and brought to England by traders, other works say that Silver Greys existed thousands of years ago in India and were brought to Europe by Portuguese sailors early in the 17th century. Gervase Markham in 1631 wrote that rabbits with silver tips to their hairs were being kept in warrens in England. It is well documented that Silvers appeared in the warrens of Lincolnshire, England amongst wild rabbit and were known as Sprigs, Millers, Lincolnshire Silver Greys, Chinchilla Silver Grey, Riche and more simply put Silver Grey. The breed was first shown in England in 1860. A buff colored Silver Grey doe took first honors at the Crystal Palace Poultry Show in the "Foreign Class" in 1863.

Mature weight at the time was 6 to 9 pounds. Thousands of them were being raised in the warrens of 1850s for table purposes in the larger cities, and the skins were bought up for exportation to Russia and China. The first English breed standard was set up in 1880. The Champagne de Argente was not introduced into the Britain until 1920 and weighed a hefty 9 to 11 pounds.

English breeders have perfected the silver breed to have an even silvering over the entire body, including the head, feet and tail. The fur is sleek, with a fly back coat. In one of my early books, Manuals for the Many the Rabbit Book, circa 1855, which I have just acquired, there is a wood engraving that screams Enderby Island Rabbit. I quote, "The head and ears are nearly all black with a few white hairs. These white hairs are more numerous on the neck, shoulders, and back; but on all the lower parts, such as the chest or belly, the number of white hairs is greater than those of a blue or black colour."

Today's Enderby Island rabbits small at 3 to 3.5Ibs., fine in bone, narrow in body, eyes very bold, head is a perfect 'V" laid on its side and the head appears quite small for the body. Ears are fine and carried in a 'V', The body is rather heavily silvered in most animals, with about 80% silvering. The extremities, i.e., the head ears, feet and tail are much darker and only lightly silvered, with a pronounced butterfly marking on the nose. The coat is unlike the Silver breed, being more open, longer and soft in texture. The youngsters can be rather slow to silver. and may require 6 to 8 months to complete the cycle. Adults become more silvered over the years. Litters are rather small with 2, 3 and 4 kits, with a record being 8. So there you have it, a very condensed version of a remarkable story. Some 250 plus generations, of natural selection during a course of 127 years of near total isolation on a sub Antarctic island called Enderby, where a nucleus of 12 rabbits would evolve to become their own breed called Enderby Island.

THANK YOU RBCSNZ for saving this breed.

Bob Whitman