A collapse in the number of rabbits in the Iberian peninsula, the region where the European or true" rabbit evolved, is pushing some of Europe's most charismatic species - including the Iberian lynx and the Spanish Imperial eagle to the brink of extinction.
Spain is so inextricably linked to rabbits that even the name "España" is derived from the Phoenician word I-shephan-im or Ishaphan which, roughly translated, means "land of the rabbits."1 As a result of their traditional abundance in the area, many of Spain and Portugal's predators are dependent on rabbits as a key prey species.
But in the last half of the 20th century Spain's rabbit population collapsed as the country was ravaged by myxomatosis followed by another serious disease - rabbit haemorrhagic disease. More than 90 per cent of the country's rabbits were lost to these diseases, and as a result their predators have also suffered massive population declines.
"It is a catastrophe for Europe's most beautiful cat species, and the other creatures that share its habitat," said Becci May, Mediterranean Programme Officer for WWF-UK.
While there are only about 100 Iberian lynx left in the world - it is the most endangered of all cat species - and only about 150 nesting pairs of Spanish Imperial eagles, there is still hope for them. In one of the last two bastions of Iberian lynx habitat, an area known as Sierra Morena, WWF is working hard to reintroduce rabbits and rebuild the natural ecosystem.
Becci May added: "It's an expensive business as all of the rabbits we relocate have to be caught from nearby areas where they have survived, to ensure they are the right genetic strain, and then vaccinated and quarantined until we know they aren't carrying any dangerous illnesses.
"Slowly but surely, it is working. Iberian lynx populations seem to be stable in the area where we are working, but rabbit recovery efforts need to be stepped up if we are ever going to see the Iberian lynx numbers recover to a level where they are no longer threatened with extinction. Easter is a time when bunnies hit the headlines all around the world, hopefully this year people will spare a thought for the original European rabbit population, and all of the creatures that depend on them."
WWF is now known simply by its initials and the panda logo.
1. The name I-shephan-im or Ishaphan was given to Spain by Phoenician merchants some 3,000 years ago. The merchants built trading posts in Spain and saw the huge numbers of small brown mammals but mistook them for hyraxes - a similar sized and coloured creature found in the Near East -so the name literally means "land of the hyraxes". The Romans then adapted the name to Hispania, which was adapted to España in modern Spanish.
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