Australia’s War Against Rabbits

by Steven Simpson


Australia’s War Against Rabbits: The Story of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease by Brian Douglas Cooke was published in May 2014. I was kindly sent an advance of publication copy and it has not been easy to put the book down.

Originally, this was to be a work to explain to fellow Australians something of the complexity of the saga to introduce rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) into the country. In the end, we have a book that offers the best of all worlds and which will appeal to both the scientist and general reader.

This is a seminal product for everyone who has an interest in rabbits: recreational hunters, ranchers, farmers, landowners, rabbit biologists and wildlife managers in both Australasia and Europe. Wildlife disease researchers, public health and education workers and researchers working on emergent diseases will all find this book useful.

I have a professional interest in scientific books, a layman’s interest in virology, a lifelong interest in wildlife, environment and conservation, and a hunter’s interest in invasive species including rabbit control. So yes, this is a great read and a valuable book. There aren’t many of the dozens of new titles I read each year that I will keep and reread, but Australia’s War Against Rabbits is certainly one. This book will spark immediate interest among kindred spirits who like to see and follow the principles of practical wildlife management.

The handling of wild rabbits is a vexing problem worldwide. In countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, wild rabbits are regarded as a real menace to agriculture and the environment. I routinely shoot more than 1000 each year. However, across many continental European nations, they are considered a cornerstone species in Mediterranean ecosystems. The introduction of two viral diseases, myxomatosis and RHD, as biological control agents in Australia has been hailed, yet their spread in southern Europe threatens natural rabbit numbers. Despite this, scientists with different outlooks are working together with a common link in understanding rabbit biology and epidemiology.

Australia’s War Against Rabbits uses rabbit haemorrhagic disease as a crucial case study in understanding how animal populations adapt to diseases, caused in this case by an RNA virus. Looking at RHD in an ecological framework enables insights into both virus and rabbit biology that are relevant for understanding other emerging diseases of importance to humans.

On the scientific side, it brings together ideas from general biology, ecology and evolution as the background for understanding disease transmission and epidemiology – aspects not normally covered by medicine or veterinary medicine in dealing with newly emergent diseases.

While the development of vaccines circumvents the need for a precise understanding of epidemiology for many human diseases, there are others such as avian influenza where a broader appreciation would help with risk analysis.

This book provides up-to-date information on recent advances in areas ranging from virus structure and disease mechanics to the sociological implications of using biological control agents and the benefits to the economy and biodiversity. It is interwoven with the infectious wry humour of the author. Who in the shooting community could not find common ground with the story of the feral cat that visited the dinner table, or sympathise with the author’s family in having to put up with his obsession with rabbit fleas?

Brian Douglas Cooke has worked on the management of wild rabbits for more than 40 years. Initially in South Australia and subsequently in Canberra, he has studied rabbits in Australia’s arid zone, Europe and the sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Islands, specialising most recently on newly emergent RHD. He is a keen rabbit shooter.

The softbound book runs to 222 pages (yes, that’s triple two), is illustrated with photos and text figures, and has a bibliography and index. It is available from local specialist booksellers, online stores and the publisher, CSIRO Publishing, for around $79.95.

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