Monday, February 1, 2010

Rabbits at the Historic Prison

Robben Island, apartheid South Africa's most notorious prison, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years, is now the country's most visited historic site. Up to 1200 people a day tour the prison, which is described as "holy ground" with "priceless buildings."

Which is weird to begin with, when you think about it. What is it about vicarious suffering that draws in the tourists? Is it simply that we love the narrative of brave people standing up to tyranny so much? Show me the cell where Mandela spent so many years in solitary confinement so that I can. . . . What? Understand? Gawk?

Anyway, the site is in the news because the island is overrun with rabbits. While the prison was open the guards kept the rabbit population under control with regular hunting, but it turns out that historic site interpreters don't hunt as avidly as prison guards. So the rabbits have put their famous reproductive capacity to work -- "The females can breed at three months of age and are capable of delivering litters of eight six times a year" -- and eaten every green thing on the place. Some have started climbing trees to get at the leaves. Their tunnels are undermining the prison buildings, and the lack of plants is causing erosion.

The administrators of the site, after trying various benign control measures that all failed, have started shooting the rabbits by the thousands. This is of course controversial, since “Robben Island is almost a holy place, and to turn it into a killing field is so inappropriate, so disgraceful, so dirty, so immoral,” as one activist put it. But the shooting is working where other measures failed, so it goes on. The meat is being fed to cheetahs in a nearby cheetah reserve.

No comments: