With a wild population estimated at fewer than 400 individuals, South Africa's riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is just a hare's breath away from extinction. Most of the rabbit's habitats in the Karoo semi-desert region have been developed over the past five decades, and the few remaining animals live in increasingly fragmented groups far away from one another on farms and other private land. Conserving the critically endangered, nocturnal rabbits, therefore, is a challenge.

But now a new population of riverine rabbits has been found on land that is actually intended for conservation: the 81,000-hectare Anysberg Nature Reserve in South Africa's Western Cape Province. The rabbits apparently migrated to the reserve from a private farm a few kilometers away, probably following a dry riverbed, according to CapeNature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The two organizations are partners in the Drylands Conservation Programme, which was established in 2003 to protect the rare rabbits.

On December 5 staff saw two riverine rabbits during the day in the reserve. That evening a dozen people returned to the site with nearly 20 spotlights. They managed to find and catch a small rabbit—an indication that the species is breeding in the area. They collected DNA samples and let it go.

The conservation program plans to launch a full-scale camera trap study to count local riverine rabbit populations later this year.

The Karoo region of South Africa is home to three other lagomorph species, including two hares and one more rabbit, none of which are endangered. The riverine rabbit—the only member of its genus—stands out from the rest with its long ears, white eye rings, black jaw stripe and brown tail.

Photo courtesy of CapeNature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust