Viral Videos Are Destroying Japan’s Supercute Rabbit Island

YouTube videos of the resort island’s famous rabbits are attracting thousands of tourists, who are killing the very things that they love.
Tourists feed rabbits at Ōkunoshima Island. (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Jul 14, 2016· 4 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The videos from Japan’s Ōkunoshima Island are undeniably cute: excited tourists laughing and screaming in joy as dozens of fuzzy, semi-wild rabbits swarm over them, looking for a bite of food.

But those viral videos, which have inspired thousands of people to visit the so-called Rabbit Island over the past two years, hold a dark secret.

The rabbits are dying.

Why? The very thing that inspires people to come to the island—the YouTube videos that have been watched by millions—is creating an unsustainable situation that puts Ōkunoshima’s wildlife and ecosystem at risk.

The rabbit population, which was apparently stable for many years, has exploded since the first YouTube video appeared in 2014. “It’s amazing how many tourists we interviewed came to the island just because of the video,” said Margo DeMello, program director for the Animals and Society Institute, an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based nonprofit. The tourists often come bearing food, and that’s creating an unsustainable population boom.

“There are now about 1,000 rabbits on this two-mile island,” DeMello said. “They’ve destroyed the ecosystem.” As a result of the lack of vegetation and the inappropriate food that tourists provide for the animals, the rabbits suffer from a variety of health problems and now have a life expectancy of just two years, DeMello and her fellow researchers found.

The findings were presented on Wednesday at the World Lagomorph Conference in Turlock, California.

Rabbits are not native to Ōkunoshima, but how they first arrived is a bit of a mystery. One theory suggests that they were originally there to test chemical weapons, which were made on the island from the 1920s through the end of World War II. Other sources say just eight rabbits were left on the island by an elementary school in the 1970s.

Either way the population has boomed on the island, which is now a national park complete with a resort, a golf course, and a museum devoted to the history of poison gas.

(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Although the resort’s website contains warnings not to pick up the rabbits or feed them snacks, DeMello said most tourists ignore the cautionary instructions. Tourists’ photos from the island posted online are proof of that.

The tourists, she said, often come bearing cabbage, one of the cheapest vegetables in Japan and a big part of the Japanese diet. Cabbage is a bad food choice for rabbits, as it causes dangerous and potentially deadly bloat. It is also low in fiber, something rabbits require for what DeMello called their “very particular digestive system.”

The supplemental food—which the rabbits now rely on because there’s so little natural vegetation left to eat—also comes irregularly, especially when cold or rainy weather or school schedules keep tourists off the island. “Rabbits need to eat all the time and consistently,” DeMello said. “Now they get huge amounts of food on some days and no food on other days. They’re not like other animals that can adapt to that.”

The situation on Rabbit Island is far from unique. Experts warn that social networking—from YouTube videos to posting selfies taken with wildlife—all too often inspires behavior that is unhealthy for animals.

One of the most notable examples relates to a group of small Asian primates called slow lorises. Popular YouTube videos show cute animals eating rice balls or being tickled, but the images have inspired people to steal the lorises from the wild in increasing numbers. The animals, which do not do well in captivity, become props for tourist photos or are sold into the illegal pet trade.

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“We cannot underestimate the role that viral videos play in making certain species more attractive to people,” said slow loris researcher Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University. “We see a direct correlation, for example, with the rise in illegal slow loris photo touts in Thailand, who previously had offered gibbons as photo props, after a series of slow loris videos went viral. Similarly, the rise in slow loris pets in Japan increased after a video of a slow loris in a Japanese victory pose went viral.”

Adam Roberts, chief executive of Born Free USA, expressed concern that “seemingly benign social media” can lead to poor behavior by humans that is detrimental to animals. “Social media can glorify the cruel consumption of animals, which leads people to buy animals, including from irresponsible breeders, and even wild animals, which should remain in the wild,” he said.

Recent research found that Barbary macaques in Morocco suffer a variety of health problems due to the food they receive from tourists—a practice that routinely generates cute photos and news stories despite large but rarely enforced fines for feeding the animals.

“Tourists should avoid feeding wild animals when it is not regulated,” said Laëtitia Maréchal, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom and lead author of the study. “It not only presents potential risks for animal welfare but also for the tourists themselves, as they might be injured or risk potential disease transmission.” Even official warnings don’t appear to stop the behavior, she said. “As people often believe that feeding animals is an act of kindness, they seem surprised or skeptical that this behavior can potentially harm the welfare of the animals involved.”

On Rabbit Island, DeMello and her fellow researchers found that the rabbits are fighting over even the least nutritious food provided by tourists. “Of the 728 rabbits that we counted on the island, 28 percent had visible injuries or illnesses,” she reported. The percentage grew to 50 percent in the areas of the island closest to humans. “The more humans interfered, the sicker and more injured the rabbits appeared to be,” she said.

Because the rabbits are officially considered wild animals, the national park and resort take no active role in their care. “We as a hotel do nothing that might impact the wild nature of these animals, such as feeding or veterinary treatment,” Christoph Huelson of the Kyukamura Hotels sales department said in an email.

DeMello said she and others worry that word about the condition of the animals could lead to tourism restrictions or even to some of the rabbits being killed off. Instead, she hopes her research will inspire some change that will benefit the animals. “I would like to see a dialogue between the government, the hotel, and some of the local people who care about the rabbits,” she said. Until then, she said, talking about the issues raised by social media might create some change in time to let the rabbits recover from the effects of the wrong kind of publicity.