The department said it has received reports of die-offs of wild rabbits and hares from the Karoo areas in the Western and Northern Cape.
State veterinary services, private veterinarians and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment were involved in field investigations. Post-mortems were performed and samples collected to confirm the cause of the deaths.
“Diagnostic tests were performed at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Laboratory and the cause was confirmed as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease,” the department said in a statement.
RHD is a disease caused by a virus, Calicivirus, resulting in a high number of deaths in rabbits and hares, and the sudden death of animals due to bleeding in the organs including the liver, kidney and spleen.
The department said this is the first detection of the disease in South Africa and at this stage, it is still unclear how the disease could have entered the country, since the importation of rabbits and hares are not allowed.
The department said investigations are underway to determine whether illegal importation could be the source.
Control of RHD in rabbitries relies mainly on vaccination, but the vaccine is not available in South Africa. This increases the importance of biosecurity measures in rabbitries and anywhere where rabbits or hares are kept.
“Biosecurity measures are difficult to implement in wild populations. The occurrence of RHD in the Karoo is therefore of great concern, as our indigenous Red Rock rabbit, endangered Riverine rabbit and hare species are highly susceptible to this disease,” the department said.
The department warned that carcasses of RHD-infected rabbits might be a major source for viral spreading, since the virus seems to be highly resistant and stable, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions.
Rabbit owners have been advised to ensure that their rabbits are secured and must prevent any contact with other rabbits or hares, either directly or indirectly through people or equipment.
Members of the public have also been encouraged to report any dead or dying rabbits or hares to the nearest State veterinarian for investigation.