Rabbit farms are springing up in the Kingdom, but are they the answer to rural hunger or a problem waiting to happen? Bennett Murray and Molyka Rom report.
From the Easter Bunny to Bunnicula the vampire bunny, few animals can evoke cuteness quite like small, fluffy rabbits. To others, they bring to mind a hearty stew.
Though the mammals are yet to become widely popular in Cambodia for either purpose, a handful of entrepreneurs and NGOs alike are scrambling to introduce them to a bigger market, confident of their appeal.
The local breed, the Burmese hare Lepus peguensis, lives in grasslands and grassy forest clearing around the Kingdom, and is a nutritious food source for villagers, high in protein and low in cholesterol.
“It tastes like chicken,” said Bee, a 21 year-old student from Phnom Penh, adding that it was cooked with hot basil spice when he tried it earlier this year in Kampong Cham.
He added one important caveat: rabbit meat wouldn’t go down quite so well in urban Phnom Penh.
“I ate those rabbits because they were already cooked when I got there. It would be weird to ask someone to cook you rabbits here, you know?”
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, one dedicated rabbit farm is trying to do just that.
“I would like to make more excitement, to become the first person to bring more rabbits to Cambodia,” said Malen Keo, who co-owns the Cambofarm Rabbitry just off National Road 2 in southern Phnom Penh.
The farm, which holds more than 200 rabbits living in stacked cages, sells rabbits to a half-dozen pet shops in Phnom Penh. Keo hopes to introduce rabbits to pet shops and restaurants alike.
The enterprise started with a single pair of pet rabbits owned by Keo, who bought them from another breeder. Breeding rabbits, while not unheard of, is not common, she said.
“I just loved them, so I bred them. It’s not really hard to care for them, so I decided to breed more and more. And later on, I sold to the pet shop.”
They raise several European and North American rabbits imported from Thailand, as well as what she says is a domesticated local breed, although she is unsure of the exact provenance.
The price varies depending on size, colour and breed, with a high-end Holland Lop costing $20.
To keep them fed, Keo imported specially-made rabbit food from Thailand.
“At first I gave them water lilly, but when I gave them a lot, they would get diarrhoea and die,” she said.
Now, Keo plans to sell some of her domesticated rabbits to restaurants.
The meat, when it is sold, is often done so covertly, she said, as owners believe they could be accused of illegal poaching by the government.
“[People] think that rabbits in the restaurants are wild, so they do not show off their rabbit meat,” said Keo, who added that her farm was in compliance with the law.
“It’s legal because we raise them like chicken or pigs.”
The nutritional value the furry mammals offer has also attracted the attention of international organisations. Delayne Weeks, vice president of Social Responsibility for Angkor Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining company that operates throughout Cambodia, said that she plans to introduce rabbit farming in the vicinity of her company’s projects in Ratanakiri.
“The locals were the ones that identified raising rabbits over chickens, pigs, etcetera,” said Weeks.
“When you compare the cost per square metre of raising lean protein – using beef, poultry, pork and rabbits, the statistical amount of lean clean protein derived from rabbits easily leads the way.
“If we look at ways in which Cambodian farmers can increase the productivity of each metre of land they manage, then rabbit meat production, done properly and responsibly, is worth researching and trials.”
She said the biggest concern is keeping the rabbits cool, which can be difficult in hot climates. However, Weeks suggested that solar fans may do the trick.
“We have prepared an area with hutches and cages and planted food,” said Weeks, who added that they are considering importing Californian and New Zealand rabbits because they are high meat-producers.
This won’t be the first attempt to introduce rabbit farming to rural Cambodia. Last year, World Vision tried to develop a small-scale rabbit industry in the Preah Vihear countryside with little success.
“Some households they are raising now, but only a little,” said Leng Vireak, Senior Program Manager of World Vision’s Economic Agriculture Development, adding that they have proven less popular than goats, which the organisation also introduced to Preah Vihear farmers.
“Rabbits are a bit complicated. One rabbit can be raised for three to four months and get four to five dollars. One live goat can get $2.5 a kilogram.”
Vireak is open to trying the rabbit experiment again, to see whether communities will take to the livestock.
“People are still hunting the wild rabbits, so in order to protect them from doing illegal actions, we should promote rabbit raising.”
Back at the Rabbitry, Malen expressed optimism for the future of rabbit rearing.
“When we show that we raise rabbits like other animals, then we could find the meat at supermarkets I think.”
Rabbits and the law
Although it is illegal to hunt wild rabbits, the conservation status of the local species is of ‘least concern’, according to Nick Marx of Wildlife Alliance.
Of greater concern to Marx was the prospect of foreign rabbits breaking loose from their cages and becoming an invasive species.
“It’s a concern to every conservationist that exotic animals start colonising out of their native areas,” said Marx, who cited Australia as a disastrous case of foreign rabbits running amok.
However, he said that imported domestic rabbits would probably not fare well in the Kingdom’s wild.
Even if they do escape, the threat would not necessarily be a major one, agreed Simon Mahood of Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Rabbits have proved good at escaping in just about any location where they are introduced, so there is a risk of them escaping and breeding in the wild, but of course any escaped populations would probably be subject to hunting, and the animals might be quite easy to catch.”