Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease and the biological control of wild rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, in Australia and New Zealand

B. D. Cooke and F. Fenner

Wildlife Research 29(6) 689 - 706
Published: 30 December 2002


This review considers the history of the discovery of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) and its spread throughout the world in domestic and wild rabbits, which led eventually to its deliberate release into Australia and New Zealand for the control of a major pest, the introduced wild rabbit. The physical and genetic structure of RHDV is now well understood, and its pathogenic effects are also well known. The epidemiology of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) has been clearly documented in the field in European countries, Australia and New Zealand. Since its initial spread through largely naïve populations of wild rabbits it has established a pattern of mainly annual epizootics in most areas. The timing of epizootics is dependent on climatic variables that determine when rabbits reproduce and the appearance of new, susceptible rabbits in the population. The activity of RHDV is also influenced by climatic extremes that presumably affect its persistence and the behaviour of insect vectors, and evidence is growing that pre-existing RHDV-like viruses in some parts of Australia may interact with RHDV, reducing its effectiveness. The timing of epizootics is further modified by the resistance to RHD shown by young rabbits below 5 weeks of age and the presence of protective maternal antibodies that also protect against fatal RHD. RHD has reduced rabbit abundance, particularly in dry regions, but rabbits in cooler, high-rainfall areas have been able to maintain their populations. In Australia and New Zealand, RHD has raised the prospects for managing rabbits in low rainfall areas and brought substantial economic and environmental benefits.


© CSIRO 2002

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