In An Effort To Cull The Out-Of-Control Rabbit Population, The Australian Government Turned To?
Answer: Viral Warfare
Australia, thanks to millions of years of geographic isolation, is home to a wide variety of unique species. These unique species and their isolated ecosystem haven’t had the easiest time dealing with foreign invaders like rats, camels, and rabbits.
Rabbits especially have proved to be particularly troublesome as they breed rapidly, have few predators, and their voracious herbivore appetites so rapidly deplete soil-securing-plants from regions of the outback that huge swathes of land are simply eroding away. The rabbits were first introduced to Australia around the end of the 18th century, but were kept well contained and used primarily for food. The current outbreak is believed to have originated with a single man, Thomas Austin. Austin had some grey rabbits shipped from England and released them onto an Australian farm for the express purpose of building a local rabbit population to hunt. Those rabbits interbred with some of the local (English) rabbits his nephew purchased to round out his initial stock and created a new rabbit breed very well suited for life in Australia.
In an effort to combat the rising rabbit population, the Australian government tried several unsuccessful techniques including (in the early years) putting a bounty on rabbits, but within a decade of the original Austin farm outbreak, the numbers were swelling so quickly that even killing two million rabbits a year did nothing to put a dent in the population. In the early 20th century, there was an attempt to build a rabbit-proof fence across the outback to halt the spread, but that proved ineffective as the rabbits simply got better at jumping (or snuck through gates left open by less-than-vigilante farmers).
What proved to be the most effective solution was the one proposed and deployed in the 1950s: viral warfare. In the 1950s, the myxoma virus (harmless to humans but deadly to rabbits and hares) was released into the wild. The effects were immediate and widespread; the population of 600 million rabbits in Australia dropped to 100 million within a matter of years. Although some rabbit populations have developed resistance to the virus (and the population has swelled again to around 200 – 300 million), the government has continued to fund and push forward other bacterial and viral based initiatives as their best chance at a rabbit-free Australia.
Image courtesy of the Queensland State Archives.