After a thrilling afternoon immersing yourself in the pursuit of finding one of the Big Five, you might find that you start to wind down by the evening and reflect on the day. It’s normally during this time that one’s mind starts to wander to the upcoming delicious dinner around the boma fire. Without even realising it though, your head still moves from one side to the other as your gaze follows the spotlight, being shone by the tracker in the front seat.
The evening drive is not over yet and you never know what lesser-seen nocturnal animal or owl might be around the corner. There is however one small but long-limbed creature you are almost always guaranteed to see and that should not be overlooked – The Scrub Hare!
Usually, not long after myself or Tracker Bennet Mathonsi points out a scrub hare do the looks of confusion and questions begin – “what is a Scrub Hare?” or “it is just a rabbit isn’t it?”. So as not to overlook these ‘rabbits’, I like to take the time during the first sighting of one to explain the differences between the two furry animals that are also both often affectionately referred to as ‘bunnies’.
Scrub Hares vs Rabbits
Having obvious similar traits in terms of appearance, taxonomically scrub hares and rabbits are from the same family – Leporidae, Latin for “those that resemble Lepus” and Lepus translating to a hare.
Across South Africa, we have three species of hares – the Scrub Hare, the Cape Hare, and the African Savannah Hare as well as a number of rabbit species, including several rock rabbit species. One of the most well-known yet critically endangered is the Riverine Rabbit. Out of all of these, we only see the Scrub Hare here at Londolozi.
Based on physical appearances, hares can be distinguished from rabbits by their larger size, longer hind legs, and long ears. The Scrub Hare specifically has a grizzled-grey back with small flecks of black that help them camouflage themselves during the day. In daylight they lie flat and motionless in a small indentation in the ground known as a ‘form‘ before becoming active in the evening and moving around on their own. This differs from the more social rabbits that live in burrows or warrens underground and are active during the day.
Leverets and Kittens
This brings me to the next major difference between Scrub Hares and rabbits – the Leverets and Kittens. The young of a Scrub Hare is known as a Leveret (the word originating from Old French levrat, diminutive of levre meaning ‘young hare’).
Leverets are born above the ground. Due to the immediate dangers that the young are exposed to aboveground, leverets are born precocial. This means they are fully furred with their eyes open and vision acute and with the ability to move independently shortly after birth. The mothers will nurse the leverets at night, but this is only for a short period.
Kittens, on the other hand, are the offspring of rabbits and are born altricial, meaning they are blind, furless, and helpless for approximately ten days and completely dependent on their mothers. Through necessity for their warmth safety and survival, the mothers will dig burrows into the ground where the kittens will be kept.
Once the differences have been clarified, we often see scrub hares around every corner, running into the road when they see the headlights of the vehicle. With these bright lights cast from the vehicle, the scrub hares are unable to see out into the shadows and often see their own shadows as predators. This causes them to zig-zag as they run, trying to escape the threat. It is due to this that we quickly switch off our lights to let them run safely into the darkness.
Scrub hares are incredibly athletic and if they are discovered by any predators such as jackals, leopards, wild dogs, or birds of prey, they use their zig-zag motion, agility, and speeds of between 60-70km/h to confuse the approaching predator. This often results in them narrowly escaping and is a reminder that although they are small, they should not be underestimated or overlooked, as you never know when it may turn into a nail-biting chase.
Just like any animal we see here at Londolozi, Scrub Hares are fascinating. If you haven’t seen them during daylight hours – you will most certainly on your way back to camp. You might even find yourself being entertained by a friendly betting game on who can correctly guess the number of Scrub Hares that you will see on the route back to camp and who can then claim the bragging rights! Have you ever correctly guessed the number of Scrub Hares you will see on your way back to camp?