Despite considerable progress in food production in the last 30 years, 800 million people in the world are still undernourished. This is not only because of food deficits and inadequate distribution: the incomes of the poorest are too small to allow them to procure wholesome food in sufficient quantities.
Livestock production is a major component of farm economies in developing countries, contributing not only food but also hides, fibres, fertilizer and fuel, as well as a modest, interest-producing capital which can easily be mobilized when unforeseen needs arise. In addition, livestock, whether large or small, are part of the social and cultural reality of several million small farmers, for whom husbandry represents an element of economic stability and sustainability. Both human and livestock populations have grown considerably in the last 30 years, but the rates in developed and developing countries are not comparable. Whereas the global human population has risen by 75 percent since 1960, in the developing countries the rate of increase was 97 percent and in the industrialized countries 28 percent. All species of livestock populations increased, but monogastrics (pigs and poultry) much more than ruminants.
Small-animal husbandry can be a very lucrative operation for both landed and landless small farmers; providing work for women, children and the handicapped (the least privileged social strata), producing substantial income and helping to upgrade the family diet. Many small domesticated species (guinea-pigs, capybara, cane rats, etc.) meet these objectives, but rabbit husbandry is far more prevalent, particularly in the Mediterranean area. Certain traditional rabbit production systems particularly adapted to hot, dry, semi-arid countries have been successfully developed.
Backyard rabbitries are particularly well suited to small farmers, whether they own land or not. The advantages are closely related to the reproductive and feeding behaviour of rabbits and the fact that the species is both profitable and easy to integrate:
· as a small monogastric herbivore, the rabbit easily accommodates a fairly wide range of cellulose-rich foods;
· it is adaptable to the family diet and food preservation techniques available on small rural and peri-urban farms;
· it is highly productive in terms of offspring (kg/year/dam) thanks to mating-induced ovulation, short gestation and lactation periods and great prolificacy;
· it produces highly nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat;
· it is easy to transport and market and the recurrent costs for maintaining animals beyond the optimum marketing age are low;
· labour costs are low and the work can be done by family members: women and children, or perhaps aged or handicapped people, usually the most vulnerable and least privileged social strata, for whom rabbit husbandry, like that of other small animals, represents an attractive and remunerative occupation;
· it represents a contribution to the family income;
· investment is low: infrastructure and equipment can easily be put together by the breeder and not much space is needed.
Backyard rabbitries are the perfect answer to today's demand for sustainable development projects. For this reason, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and governmental and non-governmental development organizations have given firm and virtually universal support to rabbit projects in the developing countries. In the last ten years, FAO's Animal Production and Health Division (AGA) has supported and developed rabbit projects in Egypt, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Mexico, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire).
However, projects which have been successful have not had the expected catalytic effect and others have heavily regressed or completely disappeared. It would be a good idea to pinpoint the reasons for these failures and seek the most appropriate solutions before attempting to relaunch such activities.
Constraints may concern:
· social, cultural and economic factors: customer acceptance of rabbit meat and ease of marketing;
· a lack of local resources available for balanced, low-cost, locally adapted rations;
· the existence of rabbit housing and management styles that inhibit the range of rabbit territorial, social, sexual, material and feeding behaviours;
· the presence of diseases representing a set of syndromes, rather than specific pathologies: if so, the appropriate approach would be an ecopathological one;
· breeder training: breeders may be unfamiliar with this species, which has very different behavioural characteristics from other domesticated species. Training should include useful theory and solid practical apprenticeship.
By the year 2010, the world population will have risen from the present 5.4 billion to 7.2 billion, moving past nine billion by 2025. This increase will be felt mainly in the developing countries, where the corollary will be sizeable growth of the peripheries of urban conurbations, increased pressure on available land and major changes in the composition of animal populations. There will also be substantial impact on available natural resources and on the future demand for livestock products. This will have a profound effect on the choice of feed resources and livestock systems.
More land will have to be allocated for food production, reducing the feed resources (natural rangeland, pastures, forage) available to feed this growing population, as can already be seen in Asia. Even so, appropriate technology can release additional harvest residues and agro-industrial by-products which can be used for livestock feed. Clearly, enhanced food production requires more efficient utilization of natural resources and the development of alternatives such as rabbit husbandry.
This is why this manual, first published in 1984, is now being reissued. This very successful publication, translated into English and Spanish and reissued in 1990, has long been out of print. An update thus became imperative in light of the major new developments and progress in rabbit husbandry in the last ten years. Publication of the handbook, delayed for many months, coincided with the Sixth World Rabbit Congress held in Toulouse from 8 to 12 July 1996. This meeting reported on the latest and best rabbit technologies, as well as those which can contribute effectively to food self-sufficiency in low-income food-deficit countries through sustainable production models.
FAO is indebted to the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) team under the leadership of François Lebas for their contribution to this edition, their fine work and the many concrete instances of fruitful, joint collaboration over the last few years.
Livestock Production Specialist
Animal Production Service
Animal Production and Health Division