The Case of Big Business and The Missing Bunny

Why would a JSE listed company with an EBITDA of R2 billion be interested in a little known and very rare nocturnal rabbit? Indeed in a country with rampant crime, a struggling economy and over fifty percent unemployment, why should any of us?

These were questions, attendees of the final Rhodes Business School Business Forum of 2011 were seeking answers to from Andrew Johnston, Group Company Secretary of the Altron Group.

In his presentation, he described the very precarious existence of the Riverine Rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis), endemic to the southwest region of the Karoo that has been on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species since 2002.

The distribution of this species is centred around the town of Loxton and covers about 350,000 square kilometres. There are currently only 1,200 Riverine Rabbits estimated to be left, however, it is difficult to confirm the exact number as this animal is nocturnal and reclusive by nature.

None of the habitat in which the Riverine Rabbit is found is protected by legislation, most of it instead being in the form of voluntary conservancy created by the farmers in conjunction with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).

According to Johnston, the plight of the Riverine Rabbit is mainly due to an ever increasing need for agricultural land.

The rabbit also has specific biological and ecological characteristics, which make it highly sensitive to impacts caused by loss of habitat. With an age span of four years and females birthing only one kitten per year, it makes for a very grim scenario.

EWT has a dedicated team of researchers who are attempting to treat the root cause of the problem by rehabilitating the Rabbit’s habitat.

These activities include a nursery from which indigenous vegetation is grown for replanting in the affected areas. This brings employment opportunities to the local community.

Their other key focus has been to perform field surveys to determine numbers and to educate the communities in the region dominated by farmland and ranches.

Encouragingly, there have been new sightings of the Riverine Rabbit in the Oudtshoorn region although at this stage it is unclear whether these sightings were of a hybrid population of Riverine Rabbit or whether they were a subspecies or maybe even an interbred population. More research is required to determine the nature of the newly sighted rabbits.

The Altron Group along with a few other corporates have been involved in supporting the Riverine Rabbit Programme via the EWT for several years now. Their focus has been mainly to support the EWT’s efforts financially and to increase awareness of the rabbit’s plight.

Over R500,000 has been raised since 2008 to this end. Johnston argued that there had to be a business imperative for the Altron Group to be involved with this programme and the benefits included; tax breaks, credit for CSI activities, retention of the younger and more conservation conscious “Y” generation of employees and the “warm fuzzy” feel good factor that comes with simply doing good.

In support of this programme, the Altron Group’s branding was strongly evident in the images shown of EWT’s facilities and vehicles. Johnston also indicated that several similarly branded billboards were being erected along the highways and byways of the Karoo.

In reflecting on Johnston’s presentation, it became apparent that none of us were value neutral. Some believe that there is an absolute moral obligation to support the rabbit, irrespective of the business motive.

Others can see the merit in business putting its weight behind such an initiative, from the point of view of enlightened self-interest, but question if only R500,000 is justifiable from a company as financially powerful as Altron.

On the other hand, perhaps it is given the other pressing problems facing our society and really it is up to the community of Loxton to take charge of the rabbit’s destiny.

Whatever viewpoint you adopt, we all came away with the same conclusion though. Without doubt, we all lose if we let this shy animal becomes extinct.

The saddest observation of all, is that not a single person in the lecture theatre had ever set eyes on this rabbit and in all likelihood, most of us never will. Let’s hope that the efforts of all involved make a difference.

Long live the Riverine Rabbit!

Article written by MBA2010 Class students: Mark Bedser, Tara Booth, Vernon Moonieya, Leonie Richter, Richard Wyngaard and Marshall Zvarevashe


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