When Kakimaye Youth Group bought 10 rabbits during a field day at Magogoni area in Yatta, Machakos county, they knew they had struck gold.
Like many youth groups in the county, they had taken up rabbit keeping to empower themselves.
Through funding from the Institute of Culture and Ecology, the group purchased their first batch of Chinchilla and Californian white breeds at Sh2,000 in January 2015.
The 18-member group started cuniculture (the art of rabbit keeping) with gusto since this would come as a supplement to their table banking initiative.
"We had been trained on management practices of rabbit keeping for a week in December 2014 by ICE and so we had high expectations when we started,” recalls John Wambua, the group’s rabbit project caretaker and member.
But their hope was dashed after the rabbits succumbed to mite infestation.
"We have only been left with seven rabbits, three bucks and four does. The disease has wiped out the rest and the bucks that we have are not able to mate. We don’t know what to do with the rest; we can’t even sell them for meat because no one is willing to buy,” Wambua says.
After six months, the rabbits started developing strange symptoms. The group thought it was due to fighting within the cage.
“The hair at the border of the bald spot came out easily in clumps, usually with some coarse flakes of skin attached and the claws eventually remained exposed. The sight is not pleasing at all,” Wambua says.
The group was advised to start using engine oil but Wambua confirms that their skin kept peeling off.
"Since I started using these remedies, I did not see any change.” he says.
Twailye Kwitu Self Help Group in Kyeleni-Matungulu have also been affected and the situation has sent both groups into panic mode.
"It is the same script, different location. We bought 10 rabbits during the field day. The rabbits have not mated since, we are not sure what the problem is,” says Samuel Wathome, a member of the group.
Animal experts attribute this sterility in bucks to diseases, a feeding programme that lacks nutrients and the source of rabbit breed.
Lydia Komen, a rabbit expert with the National Rabbit Breeding and Training Centre in Ngong, says the daily requirement for rabbits feed include energy, proteins, minerals as well as fats and vitamins.
"Rabbits are light feeders with an amazing rate of feed to meat conversion, hence the need to maintain a good feeding programme,” she says.
Rabbits are highly sensitive to extreme temperatures. They are highly prone to sickness like pneumonia if exposed to frigid temperatures or draft which can highly affect mating.
"High temperatures expose bucks to risks of becoming sterile. Hence the need to use hutches that allow free flow of air,” says Komen.
Komen says such cases can be controlled through injectable or oral antibiotics administered to the rabbit.
"Farmers should visit their vet regularly to report any slight symptoms to avoid the spread, as well as clean the rabbit cage after each treatment to control reinfestation since fur and dander in the environment may contain mite eggs,” she says.
Rabbit farming is growing steadily in Kenya and in 2003 alone, the rabbit population in the country was estimated at 600,000 by the ministry of agriculture, livestock and fisheries.
Komen advises that rabbits require maintenance of high hygiene standards to prevent the spread of diseases like diarrhoea.
Farmers should also separate the two sexes when they get into breeding age. Mating is also best timed at the cooler hours of the day.
"Apart from disease, bucks ability to mate can be affected by being put together in one cage. This could have been the reason for this late mating tendency,” says Komen.
Despite the setback, Wambua has benefitted from rabbit droppings which he uses on his maize farm.
"Rabbit urine is a good fertiliser and insecticide hence I don’t use fertiliser anymore,” says Wambua.