Australian Rabbit Case

     CASE NUMBER: 168


     1. The Issue
     This case examines the potential environmental, legal, 
and trade issues raised by the recent accidental release of 
the rabbit calicivirus disease virus from a testing site in 
South Australia.  The virus has spread to New Zealand.  While 
the rabbit populations in Australia and New Zealand have been 
a plague on farmers for many years, it is possible that the 
virus may harm bats, cattle, deer, and plant life (namely the 
kiwi) as well.  Adding to environmental concerns is the 
possibility that the rapidly-spreading virus may linger for 
many years.  Political pressures have been building in New 
Zealand over possible damage to the national emblem (the 
kiwi) as well as the possible loss of pet and show rabbits.  
Australia has already developed a vaccine for the virus, 
which New Zealand is anxious to begin importing.  However, 
farmers of both countries stand to gain tens of millions of 
dollars in increased agricultural output since damage caused 
by rabbits is the main source of agricultural losses.  With 
the rabbit population about to be reduced by an estimated 70 
per cent, farmers will finally have relief from this problem.
     2. Description
     Over a century ago, wealthy Englishmen who migrated to 
Australia brought hundreds of rabbits on their ships with 
them to use as the object of their traditional hunts.  Since 
then, the rabbit population has become a plague for 
Australia--their numbers have grown to well over 200 million.  
The rabbits are destroying vegetation, causing severe soil 
erosion, and destroying grazing land (8 rabbits eat about the 
same amount of grass as a single sheep).  It is estimated 
that the loss of sheep to malnourishment (due to rabbits) is 
costing the Australian farming industry $A97-70 million per 
year ($75-55 million U.S.).
     By the late 1970s, Australian farmers were putting 
considerable pressure on the government to find a solution to 
the problem.  The solution was to import a virus which had 
devastated the rabbit population in South Africa: Myxomatosis 
(myxo).  At one point, myxo had reduced the Australian rabbit 
population by about 99%.  However, due to the legendary 
rabbit reproduction rate, and an increased resistance to 
myxo, the virus affected less than a 50% reduction rate by 
     At one point, ferrets were imported to help control the 
rabbit population.  Ferrets prey on young rabbits.  It was 
soon discovered that the ferrets were infected with Bovine 
Tuberculoses and were spreading it to cattle and deer.  Not 
only was there less beef and cattle to export, but it quickly 
became known on the international market that Australian 
cattle were infected with tuberculoses.  This caused a loss 
in confidence in Australian beef which further hurt exports. 
Losses in beef and cattle exports cost the farmers as much as 
$A35 million per year ($27 million U.S.).   These losses to 
Australian agrigulture made it necessary for the government 
to release a different strain of myxo to control the ferret 
population which had originally been imported to control the 
rabbit population.
     By 1990, the Australian government was facing increased 
pressure from farmers and had to find another solution to 
control the rabbit population.  It was decided that releasing 
a more powerful virus was the most efficient way to deal with 
the problem.  The difficulty came in deciding which virus to 
use.  A stronger myxo virus was developed, but testing showed 
that it resulted in a slow, unbearably painful death which 
would not be tolerated by animal rights groups.  The next 
virus, tested in 1993, was rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD).  
This virus was deemed to be more humane than the stronger 
     The problem with RHD was that it had the potential to 
spread to other animals or even destroy some plant life.  The 
virus is carried in the bodily fluids of the infected animal.  
Any contact with the blood, urine or saliva of the animal is 
likely to result in the spread of the virus.  The virus had 
shown its ability to quickly spread in Europe, where it had 
devastated the rabbit population.  RHD had also spread (in a 
less potent form than Australia was considering releasing) to 
Asia and Africa, where it was affecting plant life as well as 
killing rabbits.  The virus is believed to have spread 
through other animals that were exported from Europe.  The 
Australian government was not prepared to release the virus--
despite strong pressure from farmers--until a vaccine and 
other measures were developed to combat these problems should 
they arise.
     There is no longer a question as to what measures the 
Australian government will take to control the rabbit 
problem.  In mid-October 1995, rabbit calicivirus disease 
(RCD)--a virus similar to RHD--escaped from a quarantined 
island off the South coast of Australia where it was being 
tested.  It is reported that bushflies and journalists who 
were exposed to infected vegetation near the test center may 
have spread the virus to both Australia and New Zealand.  The 
virus is spreading very quickly.  Authorities who were once 
trying to control its spread have abandoned this effort, and 
are now offering vaccines for owners of pet rabbits and 
competition show bunnies.
     The RCD virus is projected to spread very quickly in New 
Zealand as well.  New Zealand also has a rabbit population 
problem.  However, there are concerns in New Zealand for the 
3,000 pet bunnies and 10,000 show bunnies.  In addition, it 
is feared that RCD will attack the short-tailed bat and New 
Zealand's national emblem, the kiwi.  Political tensions 
between Australia and New Zealand are likely to arise over 
the accidental release if Australia does not find a way to 
head-off the virus.  Some members of New Zealand's parliament 
have threatened to end all imports from Australia until they 
get the problem under control.  Meanwhile, New Zealand is 
quickly trying to push through fast-track import licenses for 
the RCD vaccine.  The vaccine has been sent to New Zealand 
labs for analysis and approval of use in that country.  The 
government is likely to approve large-scale import of this 
product in a matter of days.
     In Australia, it is estimated that the accidental 
release of the RCD virus will destroy 60% of the rabbit 
population.  There are currently no published predictions
as to the likelihood that RCD will spread to other animals or 
plant life.  Meanwhile, the farming communities in both 
Australia and New Zealand are pleased with the accidental 
release of the virus.  Another drastic reduction in the 
rabbit population is likely to increase their agricultural 
revenues by $A70 million ($53 million U.S.) in the next year.
     3. Related Cases
     There are no cases which deal with the current situation 
in Australia and New Zealand.  However, there is much infor-
mation about the problem that can be found on-line.  The 
following keywords can be used in combination to help narrow 
the search.

     See BALLAST Case
     See HAWAII Case
     See NEMATODE Case
     See APPLE Case

     Key Words: (1): AUSTRALIA
                (2): RABBITS
                (3): VIRUS

     4. Draft Author: Brian A. Tallerico

     5. Discourse and Status: AGRee and ALLEGEd
     The government of New Zealand is very concerned with the 
projected spread of the virus, as well as with its possible 
effects on other animal and plant life.  However, there is 
yet to be any serious friction between the two countries. 
Australia has openly admitted that it was responsible for the 
situation.  From the outset, Australia has been sharing 
information on the likely effects of the virus, as well as 
having their scientists work with New Zealand's in 
determining exactly how the virus is likely to spread.  
Australia is cooperating fully with New Zealand in providing 
the RCD vaccine and trying to devise plans for treating the 
virus should it spread to the kiwi and other plant life.
     In Australia itself, owners of pet and show bunnies are 
concerned about their rabbits.  The government is providing 
vaccines for these rabbits as well as educating owners on how 
to protect their rabbits from the virus.  It is far more 
likely that unhappy Australians will voice their qualms at 
the ballot box rather than take legal action against the 
government.  Conversely, the farming community in Australia 
is quite pleased with the accidental release of RCD since it 
stands to reduce damage caused by rabbits from $A90-75 per 
year to $A36-30 million per year ($75-55 million to $27-23 
million U.S.).
     6. Forum and Scope: AUSTRALIA and BILATeral
     Should the RCD virus spread to other animals and plant 
life, there may be class-action suits against Australia by 
individuals or environmental groups.  Should this action be 
taken by Australian citizens only, then the scope would be 
uni-lateral rather than bilateral.  However, with the effort 
being made by the Australian government to remedy the 
situation, this level of legal action is unlikely.
     Should RCD infect and cause serious damage to New 
Zealand's national emblem--the kiwi--it is possible that New 
Zealand would become outraged and seek damages from 
Australia.  Should infected animals come into contact with 
the kiwi, this is likely to happen.  The scope of this action 
would be bi-lateral.  However, the release of RCD will 
greatly reduce New Zealand's rabbit population and thus, help 
its farming industry.  Should New Zealand take action against 
Australia, it is possible that Australia would counter by 
demanding that New Zealand pay for this "service" rendered.
     7. Decision Breadth: 2 (AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND)
     Any legal action is likely to impact Australia by 
requiring the government to pay New Zealand for damages done 
to its bat population or kiwi crops.  New Zealand will only 
be affected by their receiving payment from Australia.  Legal 
action may also require new regulations on the testing of 
biological organisms, or on the release of such organisms 
into the environment.  New Zealand may enact such laws as 
well.  It is also likely that an environmental pact of some 
sort will be signed by the two nations regarding the release 
of dangerous substances/organisms into the environment.  A 
treaty of this sort would include agreements for cooperative 
efforts to remedy any further incident in the future.
     8. Legal Standing: LAW
     Whether there is any legal action taken against 
Australia or not, the government is already planning on 
investigating the accidental release and changing regulations 
regarding biological organisms.  These regulations will 
consist of the following new standards of safety and control:  
access to test sites will be further limited to necessary 
personnel only, regulations will require enclosed test areas 
to be sealed-off from the outside environment, and sites may 
be required to have an even greater buffer zone from areas 
inhabited by wildlife.

     9. Geography
     a. Geographic Domain: AUSTRALIA
     b. Geographic Site: AUSTRALIA
     c. Geographic Impact: AUSTRALIA

     Due to Australia's unique status as both a continent and 
a country, it fits into all three categories above.  The 
release of RCD is limited to this area only.  Since the virus 
is also present in Asia, Europe, and Africa, there is little 
concern over preventing its spread beyond Australia.  Due to 
its being removed from the other continents, other viruses 
have not spread to Australia.  For this reason, it is likely 
that RCD will not spread beyond Australia and New Zealand 
     10. Sub-National Factors: No
     11. Type of Habitat: DRY

     12. Type of Measure: LICEN
     The spread of RCD from Australia to New Zealand can 
hardly be classified as "trade."  However, the release of 
the virus has made it necessary for New Zealand to import 
vaccines from Australia.  Since there is an effort to 
expedite import licensing for the vaccines, this category 
best fits the situation.  
     13. Direct vs. Indirect Impacts: INDirect
     Any measures that result from this incident will focus 
on environmental safety rather than trade.  The trade aspect 
(vaccines and other services needed to control the virus) has 
developed from the need to control the spread of the virus to 
other species.  Had it not been for the release of RCD, there 
would be no trade issue at all.
     14. Relation of Measure to Impact
     a. Directly related to product: Yes
     b. Indirectly related to product: No
     c. Not related to product: No
     d. Related to process: No

     In regard to the trade of goods and services from 
Australia to New Zealand, any measures (licenses, etc.) would 
be directly related to the goods and services.  Since the 
goal is to get these goods and services from Australia to New 
Zealand as quickly as possible, the governments of both 
countries will work to reduce any bureaucratic red-tape that 
could slow the process.  The Fast-track export licence 
process mentioned earlier is the primary way to accomplish 
this.  This process requires the licence application to be 
subjected to minimal review by the necessary government 
     15. Trade Product Identification: VACCINE
     16. Economic Data
     a. Industry Output ($): Medium
     b. Employment: Minimal

     There is no doubt that the release of the virus will be 
good for the economies of both Australia and New Zealand.  It 
will decrease damages in Australia by about $A60 million ($45 
million U.S.) a year.  The output from farms will be 
increased.  In addition, the effort to control the spread of 
the virus to other species has required a small increase in 
employment.  People are needed to administer vaccines, to 
help educate the public on how to protect their animals from 
the virus, and to study long-term environmental effects of 
the virus.
     17. Degree of Competitive Impact: MEDIUM
     Australia will gain about $A60 million ($45 million 
U.S.) a year due to a decrease in damage done by rabbits--as 
long as the rabbits do not develop a resistance to the virus 
and repopulate quickly.  This gain is an initial factor.  
Should the virus spread to cattle, sheep, and other 
livestock, this gain could quickly turn into a loss as 
unhealthy livestock would cost farmers much more in the long 
run than problems caused by the rabbit population.  Some 
estimate that this new virus could end up costing Australian 
farmers $A150 million ($113 million U.S.) a year if it begins 
to effect cattle and sheep.  However, scientists do not 
believe that the virus will develop the capability to harm 
these animals.
     The possible loss of healthy sheep and cattle or cash 
crops could cost Australian farmers their share of the world 
commodities market.  It is possible that the release of RCD 
could hurt Australia's agricultural competitiveness as buyers 
will again loose confidence and find a substitute for 
Australian commoditites.
     18. Industry Sector: NOTH
     While the release of RCD has no immediate impact (if any 
at all) on Australia's agricultural production, this is the 
only major industry which stands to be seriously affected by 
the release of the virus.
     19. Exporters and Importers: AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND

     20. Environmental Problem Type: SPLL
     While the total effect that the virus will have on the 
environment is still unknown, it is certain that a large 
portion of the rabbit populations of Australia and New 
Zealand will be destroyed.  There are other possible species 
losses as well: the short-tailed bat, cattle, and deer.  The 
virus may not be as devastating to cattle and deer as it is 
to rabbits, but bats may well be in danger.
     Aside from animals, there is the possibility that plant 
life will be affected.  The kiwi has already been mentioned, 
but other plants may be lost in addition.  Finally, it is not 
known how long the virus will remain in the environment.  It 
is possible that the virus may permanently damage plant and 
wildlife in Australia and New Zealand.
     21. Species Information: Bunny-Rabbit, Short-Tailed Bat
     These two species are in the most peril.  There is also 
a chance that the kiwi, cattle, and deer in Australia will be 
affected.  The rabbit and bat populations are likely to 
suffer large death rates.  There is only speculation as to 
what the effect may be on cattle or deer.  While the virus 
may not result in death, it could make these animals unfit 
for export or use as a domestic food source.  If the virus 
spreads to the kiwi, this tropical fruit will become unfit 
for consumption.
     22. Impact and Effect: MEDIUM and STRCTural
     While the release of the RCD virus is something that 
requires immediate attention, it is far from being a global 
disaster.  This virus has been in Europe, Asia, and Africa 
for many years.  The world's rabbit population is in no 
danger of becoming extinct.  In addition, there may not be 
any negative effect on other animals or plants--and the virus 
certainly does not harm humans.  However, should the virus 
hurt cattle, deer, and plant life as well as rabbits, then 
the Australian environment will face serious structural 
ramifications.  It may be faced with many different animal 
populations infected with RCD over a period of decades.  If 
this does happen, it may require a restructuring of the 
domestic economy away from agricultural goods.
     23. Urgency and Lifetime: MEDIUM and Many years
     As stated above, the situation demands immediate 
attention in order to assess the total effect that RCD will 
have on the environment, but the world is not in the midst of 
disaster.  The problem is localized, and vaccines are already 
available.  This will probably be enough to protect vital 
livestock in the area.  The real danger is that the virus 
will remain in the environment for many years and continue to 
have an effect on subsequent wildlife.
     24. Substitutes
     Since the disaster has already occurred, finding a 
substitute to control the rabbit population is no longer an 
issue.  However, many alternatives had been considered before 
the RCD virus escaped from the test facility.  As mentioned 
above, ferrets were brought in to prey on the rabbits, but 
began spreading TB.  Other viruses were being considered such 
as: a new myxo virus, rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), and 
viral tracheopneumonia.  While another virus could have been 
developed and used, there are still many risks involved in 
dealing with viruses.  Dangerous mutations can develop that 
could allow a virus to directly infect more important 
commodities such as cattle.  The worst possible case would be 
for a virus to mutate to the point where could spread to 
humans, or become immune to even the most recent vaccines. An 
immunity to vaccines creates the possibility that a virus 
will remain in the environment or affect other species.  A 
strong virus that finds its way into a central water supply 
for either animals or humans could cause severe illness on a 
very large scale.  The other alternative was to develop and 
spread an altered protein which would sterilize the rabbits 
without killing them.  This may have been the most humane and 
least dangerous way to control the rabbit population.

     25. Culture: No
     26. Human Rights: No
     27. Trans-Boundary Issues: Yes
     The trans-boundary consists of the spread of the virus 
from Australia to New Zealand.  It is highly unlikely that 
the virus will spread any further than this.  Possible 
tensions between Australia and New Zealand have been 
discussed earlier in this case study.
     28. Relevant Literature
Ian Anderson, "Rabbit Virus to be Let Loose?" New Scientist.
     September 25, 1993. v 139, p 5.

Ian Anderson, "Imported Virus Could Control Rabbits in the 
     Outback." New Scientist. September 16, 1989. v 123,
     p 26.

"Australia Provides Vaccine to Cure Rabbit Virus." Xinhua 
     News Agency. October 31, 1995.

 "Killer Rabbit Virus Creating Political Problems in NZ." 
     Agence France Presse. November 2, 1995.