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Rabbit rearing is a frame of mind

Consider the benefits of rabbit-keeping as a source of animal protein in the tropics:

- production can start with a relatively small investment;
- rabbits can survive and breed on forage-only diets;
- rabbit-keeping can be done by men, women or young children;
- rabbit meat is comparatively low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein;
- one carcass can provide a meal for a family;
- the meat is easy to prepare;
- there are few taboos against eating rabbit.

Logically, more rural people and villagers should be taking up rabbit rearing to feed their families and earn extra income. But that isn't happening. Instead, there is a growing list of disappointed rabbit-keepers and unsuccessful projects. The rabbit isn't at fault. It's the human factor that determines whether a rabbit production project will succeed or not.

When a project fails it is for one of six reasons:

1) Keepers treat rabbits as pets- The rabbit-keeper and family may become attached to their animals, seeing them as pets rather than sources of income or food. One way to avoid this and keep the objective clear is to choose a type of rabbit that is less pleasing to the eye. Different cultures find different animal colors more attractive than others. It is a good idea to identify these preferences and take them into account, selecting the most unattractive colors and types for production-perhaps rabbits of mixed colors instead of the handsome all black or white breeds.

It helps to ensure that the rabbits have an accepted single owner, rather than the traditional multiple ownership. New keepers should learn how to kill their rabbits in a quick, effective and humane way before they begin raising them, or one person should act as the specialist killer for a village or area.

2) Production levels haven't been decided on-When food is in short supply producers understandably try for maximum output, but this can be a serious mistake with rabbits. It is better to regulate production to reach optimum levels that are more likely to be sustainable.

Rabbits are prolific. They can produce litters of six to 10 offspring after a gestation period of only 30 to 31 days, which means one doe is capable of yielding 30 to 40 or more rabbits a year. This level of production is impossible in most of the rural tropics, where rabbit-keepers must depend almost totally on forage-only feeding for economic reasons.

If village rabbits produce litters of more than six and there is no concentrate food available for the doe, it is better to kill the weakest to reduce the litter size to three or four. Most rabbit-keepers find this difficult, if not impossible, but they have to learn to be realistic. If they don't cull the litter the chances are the large litter will be too demanding for the doe to feed. The litter will reach weaning age at six to eight weeks in a weakened state and will not be able to transfer successfully onto forages alone. Swollen stomachs and undernutrition will lead to coccidiosis or other complications.

Rabbits are biologically capable of conceiving when still suckling, but this is another bad idea. If keepers are patient and wait until after weaning before re-mating, the doe will have time to accumulate the fat her body needs to produce milk-a crucial source of high energy food-when the next litter is suckling. Regular weighing of the doe after weaning will show if she is putting on fat reserves. Delayed remating will mean lower annual production per doe but will increase the chances that the doe is able to produce.

3) The work involved may be underestimated-New keepers may underestimate the amount of work involved in rabbit production, starting with building the hutch. It may be impossible to protect rabbits from human thieves, but a hutch should keep out snakes, dogs and rats. Construction can't be done in a few hours from bits and pieces casually available. It takes time and considerable skill.

Once the rabbits are established, a keeper has to devote at least two hours a day to even the smallest rabbit unit. And there can be no days off to go to weddings or funerals, because rabbits need attention every day of the year.

To make up for the poor quality of most tropical forage, rabbits need a regime of “variety, little and often.» Keepers must spend from half an hour to two hours, three times a day, collecting grass, weeds and herbs and feeding them to the rabbits in small amounts. It's useless to put a big pile of food into the hutch for the entire day's feeding, because once the rabbits have trod or urinated on the food and it loses its freshness, they won't eat it.

It is worth remembering that, through their behavior, rabbits can tell the keeper a great deal about their needs and condition-but only if the keeper spends enough time observing them.

4) Keepers forget rabbits aren't people-New keepers often treat a new litter like human babies, thus doing more harm than good. To avoid painful mistakes, learn the essentials about rabbits before raising them.

Suckling habits are important. Human babies usually suckle their mothers six to eight times a day, but young rabbits are allowed to suckle only once or twice at most from the first day of life. The newborn litter needs to be left undisturbed so suckling can take place. Consequences can be serious if a keeper disturbs the litter and a feeding is missed.

It's also essential to know that, because rabbits must run fast to escape predators in the wild, they've evolved a very light skeleton, which is easily damaged. If a rabbit is handled roughly or dropped, its backbone can he injured and its hindquarters paralyzed.

5) Growers ignore consumer attitudes-Consider the preferences and attitudes of consumers before beginning production, because rabbit is not like other meats they are used to buying.

A shopper may be put off by a skinned rabbit carcass, thinking it looks like a cat or even a human baby. To get around this, it is a good idea to pre-cut portions, rather than present the whole stretched carcass for sale.

Consumers should also be warned that rabbit meat is so soft and tender it may disintegrate when boiled. Dry cooking methods are better.

6) The danger of escape is overlooked-When rabbit-keeping is under consideration, local officials and farmers are often concerned that some rabbits might escape, become wild and turn into pests of crops and vegetables. This has been a problem with undomesticated or semi-wild types, but not with fully domesticated breeds. Concern is warranted, however, because even when domesticated, uncontrolled rabbits can cause substantial problems. The possibility of escapers should be considered under specific local conditions.

Rabbit-keeping is not without problems, but the problems are surmountable. Given some study, a willingness to work hard and sensitivity to the consumer, the rearing of rabbits could become a growth industry for the tropics.

Denis Fielding