The influx of tourists flooding Ōkunoshima, also known as Rabbit Island, has turned out to be problematic for the island’s fuzzy, long-eared residents.
Ōkunoshima may be known as the island brimming with cute, well-fed, and adored little bunnies who don’t even have to worry about predators. Nowadays, people call it “Usagi Jima”, or “Rabbit Island”. This sounds like an island straight out of a whimsical animated movie, but not only is it very real, it also actually has a dark past.
The island is found in the Seto Inland Sea, two miles off the coast of Takehara, a city in the Hiroshima Prefecture. In the late 1920s, the Japanese government tested poison gas on the island—under the cover of secrecy, of course. In fact, the island was even eliminated from Japanese maps to keep it hidden from prying eyes. The poison gas produced from the island’s facilities—phosgene, mustard gas, and more—were used against Chinese military and civilians during the war in the 1930s and 1940s.
The remains of the gas factory on Ōkunoshima [Photo by Kate Harrison]
Rabbits were brought to the island as test subjects for the poison gas. There are those who speculate that the rabbits overrunning the island now are descendants of the original test subjects. However, experts say that the test subjects were most likely euthanized after the operations on the island ended.
There are also rumors that a British a couple who visited the island or a nearby school brought rabbits with them and released the little critters in 1971. By 2007, about 300 rabbits inhabited the island. Now, however, there are an estimated 700 to 1,000 rabbits on Ōkunoshima.
In 2014, a video of a woman “stampeded” by rabbits on the island went viral. Before then, old people and school children made up most of the island’s visitors. Since the video shot to fame, however, more tourists have been making their way to the island than ever before. In 2005, about 136,000 tourists came to the island, but that number ballooned to 254,000 in 2015.
Researchers say that 700 to 1,000 rabbits are entirely too much for such a small island. Margo DeMello, head of the rabbit rescue group House Rabbit Society, and other researchers spent 10 days on the island in March of 2015 to study both the rabbits and people of Ōkunoshima. The researchers say that the influx of visitors to the island is a problem for the rabbits.
The viral bunny stampede [Video via LPE360]
The rabbits on the island are herbivorous, known to feed on things like leaves, seeds and roots. Tourists, however, bring carrots, cabbages, and lettuce to feed the rabbits. The problem is that while tourists may not know it, these vegetables are actually toxic in large amounts to the rabbits they’re feeding them to. The rabbits have sensitive digestive systems that can’t break down these vegetables. While there are signs all over the island asking tourists not to feed the rabbits, these feedings are encouraged in the winter, when food sources are scarce.
However, these changes in the amount of food available isn’t good for the rabbits. These rabbits need to eat every day, but depending on things that influence tourism, they may eat well on a Saturday and starve the following Wednesday.
A tourist feeds a horde of rabbits on Ōkunoshima [Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images]
Other than this, Ōkunoshima has also never been decontaminated thoroughly. Thus, toxins from the chemical tests decades ago have contaminated water. This means that the rabbits also need to rely on tourists for clean water.
While it may seem like tourists are keeping these rabbits alive, the researchers have found that rabbits have gotten illnesses and injuries from their interactions from tourists. The many cars plying the island’s roads have also run rabbits over. However, if these rabbits are facing these problems, how is it that they’ve only grown in number in the past decades?
"As a population, I think they're doing fine," says DeMello. "Individuals, I think, are doing not-so-fine." However, authorities don’t have a concrete plan for ensuring the safety of these rabbits—whether individually or as an entire population. As of now, things are up in the air, and the future of the rabbits on Ōkunoshima remains uncertain.
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