|Taxidermy specimen of Amami Rabbit at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan.|
|Amami rabbit range|
The Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi; Amami: [ʔosaɡi]), or Amamino kuro usagi (アマミノクロウサギ 奄美野黒兔?, lit. "Amami wild black rabbit"), also known as the Ryukyu rabbit, is a primitive, dark-furred rabbit which is only found in Amami Ōshima and Toku-no-Shima, two small islands between southern Kyūshū and Okinawa in Kagoshima Prefecture (but actually closer to Okinawa) in Japan. Often called a living fossil, the Amami rabbit is a living remnant of ancient rabbits that once lived on the Asian mainland, where they died out, remaining only on the two small islands where they survive today.
The Amami rabbit has short hind legs and feet, a somewhat bulky body, and rather large and curved claws used for digging and sometimes climbing. Its ears are also significantly smaller than those of other rabbits or hares. The pelage is thick, wooly and dark brown on top and becomes more reddish-brown on the sides. The eyes are also small compared to more common rabbits and hares. The average weight is 2.5–2.8 kg.
Distribution and habitat
The ideal habitat for these rabbits is in an area between mature and young forests. They use the dense mature forests as protection and for the presence of acorns for their diets. They also use the high density of perennial grasses and herbaceous ground cover in the young forests for their diets during different times of the year. Therefore, the best habitat for them to live in is where they have easy access to both young and mature forests with no obstructions between the two forest types.
Using fecal pellet counts and resident surveys, the number of rabbits is estimated at 2000–4800 left on Amami Island and 120–300 left on Tokuno Island.
This species is a nocturnal forest-dweller that reproduces once in late March–May and once in September–December, having one or two young each time. The mother digs a hole in the ground for them to hide in during the day. At night, the mother opens the entrance to the hole, while watching for predators (such as venomous snakes), and then nurses her young, after which she closes the hole with soil and plant material by thumping on it with her front paws. Amami rabbits sleep during the day in hidden places, such as caves. They are also noted for making calling noises, which sound something like the call of a pika.
Before 1921, hunting and trapping were another cause of decline in population numbers. In 1921, Japan declared the Amami rabbit a "natural monument" which prevented it from being hunted. Then in 1963, it was changed to a "special natural monument" which prevented it from being trapped as well.
Habitat destruction, such as forest clearing for commercial logging, agriculture space, and residential areas, is the most detrimental activity on the distribution of these rabbits. Since they prefer a habitat of both mature and young forests, they do not thrive in only mature forests untouched by destruction, yet they do not thrive in newly growing forests alone, either. There are plans to remove current habitat for these rabbits for the construction of golf courses and resorts, which is allowed because it will not directly be killing the rabbit, just changing the environment where it dwells, which is legal even under the protection of the special natural monument status.
Predator overabundance is one cause for the decline in population size. On the island of Amami, the small Indian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) was released to control the population of a local venomous snake, and its numbers have increased dramatically. This mongoose, along with feral cats and dogs, are outpreying the Amami rabbit.
In July 2008, the Amami Rangers for nature conservation obtained a photograph of a feral cat carrying a rabbit corpse (rabbit bones and fur found in cat or dog droppings had already been found), prompting discussions on better ways to control pets. A small area of the Amami Island has the Amami Gunto Quasi-National Park that further protects the population. Some attempt at habitat restoration has been made, but the Amami rabbit needs a mosaic of mature and young forest in close proximity, and when a young forest is regrown nowhere near a mature forest, this rabbit is not likely to inhabit it. Research and population monitoring also is underway to try to keep the numbers from declining, even if they can not be increased.
Suggested conservation work for the future includes habitat restoration and predator population control. A healthy balance of mature and young forests still exists on the southern end of Amami, so keeping that area protected would be a good start. Restricting logging would also help to keep more forest available for the rabbits to live in by leaving more forest standing, as well as disturbing the surrounding environment more. There should also be an end to the building of forest roads used for logging and travel, as they cause population and habitat fragmentation, as well as allow predators easier access to the middle of forests where a majority of the rabbit population exists. Controlling the populations of mongooses, feral dogs, and feral cats is another approach that could help bolster the rabbit population. Eradication of the mongooses and feral cats and dogs is needed, as well as better control of pets by local island residents.
The Lagomorph Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources proposed a plan of conservation in 1990. The Amami Wildlife Conservation Center of the Ministry of the Environment was established in 1999. It restarted a mongoose eradication program in 2005 and designated the Amami rabbit as endangered in 2004 for Japan.
The Japanese now protect this rabbit, and have given it the special status of a living 'natural monument'.
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- Lagomorph Specialist Group (1996). Pentalagus furnessi. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Listed as Endangered (EN A2b, B1+2bce, C1 v2.3)
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- "アマミノクロウサギ 野ネコが捕食 決定的瞬間を撮影"[dead link]