Millions of starving wild rabbits are eating their way across the outback like a furry carpet, stripping it bare of vegetation in one of the worst rabbit plagues on record, officials said Wednesday.
The plague follows a weekslong drought, and farmers said dead and dying rabbits were filling dried riverbeds and water holes.Scientists from the South Australian state government's Animal and Plant Control Commission said they were trying to measure the ecological impact of the infestation, which has ravaged thousands of square miles of the sparsely populated outback.
News reports said the rabbits were so desperate for food and water they were licking plates left by campers.
The Quinyambie cattle station, several hundred miles north of Adelaide, said it was overrun with rabbits. Dr. Brian Cooke, the commission's senior research officer, estimated 24 million rabbits invaded the ranch.
But Ron Hyde, manager of the 2,800-square-mile Quinyambie station on the border between the state of South Australia and New South Wales said he thought the estimate was low.
"Some areas of the ground are virtually moving around here. There are so many of them," he said by radio telephone. "Every inch of shade beneath trees and bushes and by fence posts is packed with rabbits trying to escape the sun."
Cooke said it was the worst plague on record. "I've never seen anything like it," he said, describing a field trip in which he saw thousands of rabbits huddled in the shade to escape the 115-degree summer heat.
Rabbits, introduced by the first European settlers 200 years ago, took to Australia because it has no natural predators. They became one of the worst pests on the island continent.
The latest outbreak follows two years of heavy rains, said Cooke. Efforts to eradicate rabbits with the virus myxomatosis have waned as the animals became immune, he said.
He said the explosion in rabbit numbers began in a 155,000-square-mile mainly pastoral region in far northeast South Australia and part of New South Wales and that the animals were moving south, where it is cooler.
Australia's wild rabbit population is estimated to exceed 200 million, or about 13 rabbits for every Australian, according to the government-funded Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Rabbits cost Australia millions of dollars a year in lost agricultural production, the bureau said. They produce six to seven litters a year, bearing about five to six offspring each time.
"The drought has left rabbits high and dry," said Cooke. "They've eaten the place out. Millions of them are dropping dead.
"They have eaten out all the vegetation," he said. "Without successful regeneration, these areas will become increasingly treeless with no feed and shelter for stock and wildlife during the drought years."
The outback abounds with wildlife such as kangaroos, wild horses, buffalo, goanna lizards and dingoes, the native Australian wild dog, as well as fragile plants not found outside Australia.
Commercial shooters are having a field day on the Quinyambie ranch, shooting up to 400 rabbits a night for their skins and for use in pet food. Hyde said two teams of 12 shooters were operating on his property.
"Even if they shot 1 million rabbits each, it would have virtually no impact on the population," he said.