The impact of rabbit haemorrhagic disease on wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) populations in Queensland

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) escaped from quarantine facilities on Wardang Island in September 1995 and spread through South Australia to Queensland by December 1995. To determine the impact of this biological control agent on wild rabbit populations in Queensland, shot sample and spotlight count data were collected at six sites. RHDV spread across Queensland from the south-west to the east at a rate of at least 91 km month–1 between October 1995 and October 1996. The initial impact on rabbit density appeared highly variable, with an increase of 81% (255 ± 79 (s.e.) to 385 ± 73 rabbits km–2) at one site and a decrease of 83% (129 ± 27 to 22 ± 18 rabbits km–2) at another during the first outbreak. However, after 30 months of RHDV activity, counts were at least 90% below counts conducted before RHDV arrived. Using a population model to account for environmental conditions, the mean suppression of rabbit density caused by rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) was estimated to be 74% (ranging from 43% to 94% between sites). No outbreaks were observed when the density of susceptible rabbits was lower than 12 km–2. Where rabbit density remains low for long periods RHDV may not persist. This is perhaps most likely to occur in the isolated populations towards the northern edge of the range of rabbits in Australia. RHDV may have to be reintroduced into these populations. Further south in areas more suitable for rabbits, RHDV is more likely to persist, resulting in a high density of immune rabbits. In such areas conventional control techniques may be more important to enhance the influence of RHD.

Author Story, G., Berman, D., Palmer, R. and Scanlan, J.
Year 2004
Secondary title Wildlife Research
Volume 31
Number 2
Institution Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines
Pages 183-193
Control method Biological Control
Region QLD