A Sumatran striped rabbit, widely considered to be the rarest rabbit in the world, has been rescued by Indonesian wildlife officials after it was spotted by accident on Facebook.
The vulnerable species is known only from a dozen specimens collected in the early 20th century which are now sitting in a Dutch museum. Since then, there have only been occasional sightings in the wild and a handful of camera trap images.
The rabbit is thought to be the rarest species among all lagomorphs (rabbits, hares, and pikas).
They are so rare that when one appeared on Facebook, the conservation community, as well as officials from the Kerinci Seblat National Park in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, were quick to track down the would-be seller and rescue the priceless animal.
The rabbit was held in safe custody by the time officials met the would-be seller, a farmer who captured the animal opportunistically at the edge of the park next to a river that had just flooded violently. The rabbit had a slight injury to its flank – possibly sustained during the flash flood.
Deborah Martyr, a programme manager from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) who advises the park’s Tiger Protection & Conservation Units, said this unexpected opportunity to eyeball such an elusive species has an enormous scientific significance.
“Very little is known about this animal, other than that it shows a marked preference for mossy hill and submontane forest. The only specimens from Sumatra date back to the Dutch colonial period – and are in the Netherlands, not Indonesia,” she said in a statement issued by FFI.
Martyr said officials from the national park explained to the farmer what he had in his possession. “Once the farmer who caught this rabbit understood its rarity, he was happy to see it returned to the national park,” she said.
The rare rabbit has now been safely released back into the forest by the park rangers, at a site chosen on the basis of existing camera trap data.
A member of the release team, Herizal, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said this is the first time he has seen a striped rabbit despite more than eight years of patrolling deep in the national park.
“It’s always good to release animals back into the wild – and this was much less stressful than releasing a tiger. We let it go and it looked around – and then started eating leaves. It seemed very relaxed,’’ said Herizal, who is a community ranger with one of the Tiger Protection & Conservation Units at the national park.
Tamen Sitorus, the director of the national park said he is proud of his staff for responding to this report so professionally and returning the rabbit to the park. “I hope the samples taken and other data collected will be useful to Indonesian scientists in building knowledge of this little-known animal,” he said in the same statement.
“While Kerinci Seblat (national park) is world-famous for its biodiversity, it is the larger charismatic animals like tigers, elephants and helmeted hornbills that usually make the headlines. People so often forget this park also protects rare species like the Sumatran striped rabbit and its habitat.”
The Sumatran striped rabbit is categorised as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List. The population of the species is unknown but the rabbit is so rare that the first-ever photograph of the species in the wild was captured in 1997. Since then, the rabbit has only been caught on camera a handful of times.