INSIGHTS ON RAISING RABBITS IN THE TROPICS. I have talked with some development workers who have been very positive about the role of rabbits in their work. Others have been equally negative. Fremont Regier has worked for some time in Zaire and now in Botswana. He was recommended to me as one who is both successful and enthusiastic about rabbits. So I wrote and asked him why rabbits catch on with one person/place and fail with another. He not only sent a thoughtful reply to this question but included a write-up for volunteers called "Some planning ideas to remember when considering rabbit production as a church project." We will be happy to send you a copy of all of this upon request. Here are some highlights summarized for you.
"In questioning many one-time rabbit raisers who later abandoned the work, I got many reasons why they stopped. Some said their rabbits died, others that they couldn't sell them, or that they had no food. In questioning other raisers who had continued to raise rabbits, I was told that rabbits do not die for no reason (hunger or ill care of dirty cages cause it), that these people had no trouble selling any rabbits they had and that feed was available. I surmised that in many cases it boils down to the fact that it just takes too much time and work for some people. Not that this is necessarily bad. But you can't raise rabbits with no work or with as little work as an equal number of chickens would take."
Another problem is the greater need for management. "A person can have a flock of chickens, throw them a bit of grain occasionally, shut them up in his kitchen at night and get away with it. Much more is required of the rabbit raiser. We found that it is best to start with a farmer who has had no experience with rabbits than with one who has 'raised' rabbits before under improper methods such as letting them run around the house. Also, farmers need regular visits to train, give new ideas, support, trouble-shoot etc. ...In areas where the traditional scavenger method of animal husbandry has been practiced, where animals are largely left to find their own livelihood, a fundamental change in attitude must take place for rabbits to be successful. To cage and regularly feed the animal is quite foreign, especially when the farmer and his family may be hungry. We must not underestimate this educational process."
To be economically feasible, the rabbit project must be based primarily on large amounts of green roughage. Though weight gain will not be as rapid, the gains will be inexpensive. The beauty of the rabbit in this situation is that it converts cheap roughage unfit for human consumption into meat of very high quality.
We then received an unexpected letter on the same subject from Gary Shepard in Nepal. "About 8 years ago I tried raising rabbits in the village, but nearly all the 80 young died and I gave up. Last fall I got a few tips and raising rabbits has caught on like wildfire now. The important points were: (1) Clean the pen daily, i.e., throw out all old grass, etc. (2) keep feed off the bottom of the pen by either building a feed rack or tying it up. (3) Make sure villagers build pens with bottom slats of bamboo or wooden rods so that it is as self cleaning as possible. (4) Avoid giving grass that is wet during the hot season. Though you might get away with it for a month or more, one day you will find that a bunch have died overnight. Cut grass in the morning and spread it out to dry excess moisture in a sheltered place (on top of the pen) and feed it in the evening. In the evening you can cut grass and dry it overnight. Rabbits do OK on a 90% banana leaf diet, but prefer a mix of foliage, weeds, etc. (5) Some books say not to give salt. This may be OK for cold climates, but if you don't, you risk the mother killing and eating her young, as is common here in the monsoon season. (I have never known it to happen to those who feed a little salt.) I put it in with a little ground grain made damp with water. Our villagers feed their rabbits a lot of mustard cake. They are far more profitable than chickens and require comparatively little grain."
We really appreciate receiving such letters. Let us hear from you about things experience has taught you.
KINNEY MITCHELL REPORTS ON HIS EXPERIENCE WITH RABBITS IN ST. KITTS. For some years we have followed Kinney's work with rabbits, which turned out to be quite a successful project. He kindly wrote up some highlights from his experience.
"We tried three basic diets. Rabbits that were fed 50% pellets and 50% green matter did best. Those fed only locally produced commercial pellets did second best. Those fed only greens suffered some losses due to feeding improper materials, but as a whole survived and grew, but not as fast.
"Many locally grown things that are considered rabbit feed turn out to be very harmful to rabbits. A healthy adult rabbit begins to suffer when these traditional bushes are introduced.
"We fed velvet bean, leucaena and banana leaves. Others added sugar cane tops, grasses and sweet potato and black-eyed pea (cowpea) vines. Most of our rabbits preferred velvet beans over other leaves (sweet potato, black eye pea, or green bean vines) or pellets, though a few preferred banana leaves. Bunnies began to eat the velvet bean leaves as soon as they could hop out of the nest box. We never had trouble from rabbits eating velvet bean leaves. They also ate the vine part. By the way, when cutting the velvet beans a brown stain got on my hands and clothes. This usually washed right off. [MLP: I stained my shirt with velvet bean vine and did not wash it off immediately. My wife, who excels in removing stains, could not save the shirt. Sweet potato vines will do the same thing.]
"We planted the velvet beans around the outside of the rabbit barn. They grew up the sides and actually covered the top of the barn. The shade helped keep the rabbits cool. The vines lived 3 years and grew vigorously, in both the hot and dry season. While we were heavily harvesting the leaves they would not make beans, but made tons of leaves. [Ed: Supposedly velvet bean vines die after the seeds mature. The lack of seed production is probably why these lived so long]. I guess the manure from the rabbits made them grow so well. Mice began to live in the leaves, but our cat kept them under control. We harvested the vines that hung over the front of the barn, and from the back and sides as they became too thick.
"Our barn is made from split bamboo for a roof. Once the velvet beans covered the roof, it was quite water tight and cool. We placed bamboo around the bottom to a height of 2.5-3 feet to keep out dogs and wire fencing on up to the top to keep out other things. The bamboo lasted 3 years.
"Our rabbits really liked the leucaena. They would eat the leaves and tender green stems and would also chew on the wooden stems. They seemed to enjoy pulling the soft bark off to eat and then chew on the wooden parts. We fed a lot of leucaena and never saw any problems, such as hair loss which is a reported problem with non- ruminants. Our leucaena are all improved types. Rabbits would also eat the dwarf wild leucaena that grows here if they were hungry, but it seems bitter and they did not like it very much. The improved leucaenas were preferred over pellets. Bunnies would also eat it as soon as they left the nest.
"Rabbits also liked banana leaves, which my tropical agriculture book says are very nutritious. The mature rabbits also liked the center part of the leaf, which has a celery-like texture. I cut the leaf away from the center part, then split the center 3/4 of its length. I could then hang these from the top of the cage so I did not need to worry about them getting soiled. Rabbits had to be very full not to eat all of them quickly.
"Rabbits also like the moringa and winged bean leaves, though we did not have enough of either to be very important.
"SOME PROBLEMS WE ENCOUNTERED [AND HOW WE ADDRESSED THEM]. 'I don't want to eat rabbit.' We invited 40 young adults from our Sunday school class for a party at our house and served rabbit- fried, baked, BBQed, stewed with tomato and rice, rabbit with rice, and rabbit salad. Everyone ate heartily-over 30 rabbits. After that we never had to worry about people being willing to eat rabbit. It is now a special meat for holidays and special occasions. I recently had to make 40 pounds of rabbit salad for a wedding reception.
" 'Rabbits do not need water.' The common belief here is that animals (cows, sheep, goats, rabbits) get all the water they need from the grass and leaves that they eat. Some time after the class for new rabbit raisers, one said to me, 'Brother Kinney, you cannot believe how much better my rabbits do when I give them water.' I told him his milk cow would give more milk too if he watered it-and sure enough it did.
" 'Rabbits can survive on local brush.' As mentioned earlier, those that ate a lot of local bushes soon got sick and died. Rabbits that did not soon prospered and got fat. The smart raisers noticed the difference and changed their ways. The others would not listen to advice and soon had no rabbits.
" 'Rabbits will not grow in St. Kitts. They get diarrhea and die.' This belief has come about because of poor diet and a poor local strain of rabbit. The main rabbit raiser had a sickly, inbred strain. After he replaced his herd with our rabbits and changed his feeding, the diseases went away. We have a rule that if a rabbit gets sick, kill it. We do not try to doctor them. We do not want to keep sick rabbits around nor pass on any genetic susceptibility to disease. We have raised over 500 rabbits and butchered 300-400 more. During this time we lost 1 to mastitis (infected mammary gland), 1 to an unknown disease, 1 broke its neck during a thunder storm (and several mysteriously opened their cage door, jumped out and re-latched the door). We started with 6 unrelated females and 2 unrelated males. The next year we added the same number of unrelated rabbits. We tattooed all the breeding animals and kept careful records so as not to interbreed."
RAISING RABBITS IN PITS. Jeanette Swackhammer in Cameroon writes that she has "heard of a method of raising rabbits in the Sahel where rabbits were kept in pits. The rabbits would then dig their own burrows in the sides of the pits and would come out into the middle to feed. Some sort of enclosure was made to cover the entrance to their dens in order that they could be caught." This keeps them much cooler. It obviously would not work in sandy soil, nor during a rainy season unless drainage could be provided. I would expect rabbits to select a site in the open pit where manure would be concentrated, in which case it could be removed. However, disease could spread rapidly if it entered the flock. If you have had experience with this, let us know.
NEST BOX BEHAVIOR OF RABBITS. At ECHO's weekly seminar our interns share highlights of what they have studied during the week. I found the article that J. R. Crouse summarized on nest box behavior of rabbits so interesting that I asked him to write it up for you. Some of the things we worried about when we got our first rabbits, I now know, were normal rabbit behavior. He based the following on an article by Dr. James I. McNitt and George L. Moody, Jr. in the Journal of Applied Rabbit Research (Vol. 10, no. 4, 01987; publication discontinued in 1992).
It may well seem that a doe does not take much interest in her offspring. Closer examination, however, reveals that the reproductive behavior of the domestic rabbit is apparently based upon that of its relative, the wild rabbit. "Non-interest" behavior towards kits may actually enhance their chances of survival in the wild. Unlike many other domestic animals, does only nurse their young once per day, and for only a short period. In the wild this behavior has survival value because the infrequent, brief visits to the nest area by the doe decrease the chance of detection by predators. Domestic does also will not retrieve their young if they climb out of the nest box. Wild rabbit nests are built at the lower end of the burrow, causing all strays to be returned to the nest by gravity. Thus, the wild doe has had no selected behavior for kit retrieval.
As mentioned above, the doe is in the nest box for nursing for only a short time. The blind kits benefit if they are ready to receive the mother for suckling. Observation by Dr. McNitt showed that at about 22 hours since the previous nursing, the kits actively gathered in a group on top of the nesting material. It is critical that each kit nurse, as a missed suckling period decreases its chance of survival. Rabbit raisers who cover up the young when exposed may be interfering with their preparation for nursing. A few seconds after the doe has entered the nest box, the young contact the nipple. This quick detection is facilitated by pheromones (chemicals the mother secretes which are detected by smell).
Does were further observed depositing a few fecal pellets in the nest box at each nursing. Kits showed excitement over this event and nibbled on the pellets. Dr. McNitt feels this normal behavior (different from definite nest fouling) may be a means of inoculating the kits with intestinal microorganisms.
Another interesting observation was urination by the kits during nursing. After nursing, the kits vigorously dug into, and fluffed up, the nesting material. These may be adapted behaviors to promote drying of the nest in order to maintain nest health. The nest is only wetted (and immediately dried) once per day, instead of continually being soiled.
When kits open their eyes at about 10 days, they are approximately three times as large as at birth and have greatly improved motor coordination. Because larger kits will displace smaller kits in the struggle for space in the nest box, the boxes should be removed as early as possible. This will allow ample nursing space and opportunity. Two weeks is the maximum time to keep young in a nest box.
MANUAL ON RAISING RABBITS FROM HEIFER PROJECT. Dr. Steven Lukefahr sent us a copy of his new book, The Rabbit Project Manual: A Trainer's Manual for Meat Rabbit Project Development. In addition to coordinating the International Small Livestock Research Center at Alabama A&M University, Dr. Lukefahr works closely with Heifer Project International assisting rabbit projects around the world.
Two things make this book different from most rabbit books in our reference library. First, it is written with Third World applications in mind. Second, it is a "trainer's manual," presented in the form of "Instructional Modules." Each module is designed to complement a development worker's own personal experience raising rabbits as he prepares lessons to share with others.
The book is divided into two sections: Instructional Modules and Stages of Rabbit Project Development. The 11 modules cover all the bases (breeds and selection, housing, feeds and feeding, reproduction, disease control, marketing etc.). Modules are well illustrated by diagrams, charts, and photographs and each one is followed by suggested lesson plans, training activities and helpful references. The second section, Stages of Rabbit Project Development, deals with the logistics of rabbit project development, covering: project feasibility, project design, project monitoring and project evaluation.
Copies of this spiral bound, 8 1/5" x 11", 103 page book are available by writing the publisher: Heifer Project International, P.O. Box 808, Little Rock, AR 72203, USA. A donation of US$10 is suggested.
HOW GREAT IS THE DANGER THAT RABBITS MIGHT ESCAPE FROM YOUR PROJECT AND "CREATE ANOTHER AUSTRALIA"? I asked this question of Fremont Regier in Botswana after he had been so kind in answering other questions. His reply follows: "I've heard this argument before but I believe it is a rather ridiculous one. The problem in Australia was caused by the introduction of wild rabbits, not of domestic rabbits. J. E. Owen in "Rabbit Production in Tropical Developing Countries: A Review," Tropical Science, 1976, 18 (4) pages 203-210 says, 'One aspect of rabbit keeping which causes concern to many developing countries is the potential threat of escaped domestic stock and their effects upon other agricultural enterprises. The unfortunate experience in Australia is probably responsible for this. It should be pointed out, however, that in Australia in the mid-19th century domestic rabbits were kept in almost every town and city. Those which were liberated or known to have escaped gave little or no trouble, except around Sydney where they became established and merely constituted a local nuisance. However, this problem paled into insignificance compared with the damage caused by wild rabbits which were introduced later on. All successful mainland invasions (of England, Australia, New Zealand and South America) have developed from the introduction of wild stock. But even in Australia wild rabbits have not spread into the tropical parts of the country.
" 'There are many instances of escaped domestic rabbits multiplying on small islands, to the detriment of the vegetation in both tropical and non-tropical climates. The burrowing habit has undoubtedly helped them to withstand periods of very high temperature and water shortage in warm countries. On large land masses such as Africa, escaped domestic stock are extremely unlikely to cause serious problems. On small islands with no natural predators, however, the situation may be very different, although the island of Malta has both wild and domestic rabbit populations and has suffered no such problems. In these situations expert advice from ecologists who are familiar with local circumstances should be sought.'"
The cited article by Owen is included in ECHO's Technical Note "Observations on Raising Rabbits in the Tropics." Also included is a review of some of the literature available from World Neighbors. The most unusual is a manuscript called "Commercial Rabbitry Handbook." This is written by two Ghanaians who have an interesting method of reducing labor and number of cages by housing rabbits in large groups which they call intensive gangs. Even does about ready to kindle are caged in pairs. Also interesting is a method called "rotary crossing" that they use to ensure that a uniform number of bunnies are produced each week even in a large rabbitry. Request this Note from ECHO if you are interested.
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