Outback farmers fear plot over rabbit plague

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The Independent Online
"BLUEY" Adams is an Outback institution who made his living shooting rabbits, sometimes 2,000 a week. The closest he ever got to civilisation was Wompah Gate, a remote spot in south-west Queensland where he would hand over his haul to a rabbit-dealer once a fortnight, take delivery of his provisions and disappear into the bush again.

Now, Mr Adams, "Peg Leg" Johnson and other rabbit-shooters of their ilk have disappeared, perhaps for ever, thanks to a virus that has swept through Australia's Outback and wiped out millions of rabbits in one of the biggest wildlife exterminations the country has seen.

Australian authorities imported the rabbit calicivirus under tight security from Czechoslovakia seven years ago. It was quarantined for trials in the hope that it would prove to be the answer to a rabbit plague that was costing farmers A$100m (pounds 40m) a year in lost production from the grass and crops the rabbits ate and the fences they ruined as they multiplied to about 200 million, more than 10 times the number of humans.

But in October 1995 the virus escaped across three miles of water to mainland Australia from Wardang Island, off the coast of South Australia, where scientists from Australia's leading research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, were studying it.

Spreading through the Outback at the rate of 13 miles a day, it reached the mining town of Broken Hill, in western New South Wales, a month later, leaving at least one million dead rabbits in its wake. The virus has now reached everywhere in Australia where rabbits thrived. Scientists estimate the death-rate stands at 80-90 per cent of the pre-calicivirus population. If they are right, rabbits are now roughly back on a par with the human population of 18 million.

Farmers are cheering on the eradication of a creature that has been one of their biggest nightmares since rabbits were introduced last century (the culprit is thought to have been Thomas Austin, a tenant farmer from England, who released 13 rabbits in 1859 to provide game for shooting parties).

But the spread of the calicivirus is a story with X-Files overtones, leaving casualties and unanswered questions to match.

The biggest mystery remains over how the virus escaped from the island at a time when scientists were still uncertain about its possible impact on native wildlife (among which there are no known casualties so far).

Bushflies have been blamed officially for carrying it to the mainland. But Phil Newman, a former Sydney rabbit trader, believes the virus could have been unleashed deliberately by those with a vested interest in its wreaking havoc across the whole country.

Mr Newman and his brother bought TA Sampson & Sons, one of Australia's oldest rabbit processing companies, 10 years ago. During the Second World War, the company exported 100,000 rabbit carcasses a week to Britain to meet food shortages. Up to late 1995, the Newmans processed about 14,000 rabbits a week for food and fur.

When the virus's escape hit the headlines, their business closed down overnight. They claim it was left with debts of $A500,000. "You couldn't sell a rabbit now for love or money, here or overseas," said Mr Newman.

He has joined 50 other people and companies in a class action against the government, which they accuse of negligence in allowing calicivirus to escape. They are claiming millions of dollars in compensation.

The calicivirus first appeared in China in 1984 and spread through Europe before Australia imported it. If Mr Newman and his colleagues can wait long enough, they may take hope from an historical parallel.

Another virus, myxoma, was introduced to control an even bigger rabbit plague in the early 1950s. Myxoma, too, escaped from the scientists' clutches prematurely. But, after rending Australia almost rabbit-free within two years, myxoma lost its punch, and the rabbits multiplied again. As Mr Newman put it, with a tinge of optimism: "Rabbits are very adaptable creatures."