Vets Without Borders sends four bunnies on a mission


The Belgian non-profit Veterinarians Without Borders has put four rabbits on a plane to Rwanda, with the hopes of improving not just local animal health but also the standard of living of the country’s farmers

DZG workers checked on the rabbits before take-off at Zaventem

“Highly sought-after rabbits”

Last week, four rabbits from Belgium boarded a flight at Brussels Airport bound for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The rabbits, two males and two females, were off to start a new life – one in which they will join the company of local rabbits and breed with them in an effort to prevent in-breeding.

The flight is the latest in a string of initiatives undertaken by the nonprofit Dierenartsen Zonder Grenzen (DZG), or Veterinarians Without Borders, aimed at improving animal health and livestock rearing in eight African countries. Back in 2012, we wrote about the visit to Flanders of a dairy farmer and a vet from Mali, while last February we reported on the return leg, in which three organic farmers and a vet from Belgium visited Rwanda.

The four rabbits – two of them called Pluisje and Kalina, following a naming competition – were accompanied by two humans, who also won a selection competition. Carole Meerschaert is a veterinarian from Vielsalm in Wallonia, while Francis De Beir is a businessman from Merelbeke in East Flanders.

De Beir is also the father of Hélène De Beir, the humanitarian worker killed in an ambush in Afghanistan in 2004. While still chair of the insurance company ForestRe, De Beir is now also president of the foundation that bears her name, as well as a board member of DZG.

Both winners are engaged to support the NGO for one year, and their first task is to accompany the four rabbits to Rwanda to see for themselves how the organisation works on small-scale agriculture in the area. They will visit micro-farms where locals work with the descendants of rabbits, goats and pigs once donated by DZG. They will also have the opportunity to install kitchen gardens and energy-saving ovens for families. 

A fruitful experiment

The rabbits will allow the Rwandan villagers to begin small-scale livestock farming. The animals can be bred with local varieties, slaughtered for meat, and surplus animals can be traded for other commodities or other animals. 

Cross-bred rabbits are highly sought-after by other farmers and by consumers

- DZG spokesperson Josti Gadeyne

“If families breed with the same animals for too long, they run the risk of less healthy and less productive animals,” explains DZG spokesperson Josti Gadeyne. “In-breeding leads to smaller, less fertile rabbits that are more susceptible to health problems. To keep the bloodline healthy, DZG will cross-breed the farmers’ rabbits with new animals of the California variety.”

DZG first imported California rabbits – a middle-sized variety resistant to disease – from Congo to Rwanda in 2011 as an experiment, and successfully crossed them with local beasts. Families whose own rabbits were crossed with Californias produced larger, stronger animals that fetched a better price on the local market.

“For a six-month-old cross-bred rabbit, they could get €4.50,” Gadeyne explains. “A non-crossed rabbit of the same age would fetch only €2. These rabbits are highly sought-after by other farmers and by consumers. Californias also adapt very well to local conditions, such as feed and climate.” 

Three simultaneous fronts

Pointing out that he keeps sheep, chickens and donkeys, De Beir says he is a great animal lover. When he saw the DZG contest, he immediately applied. “I’m so glad they chose me. The organisation does great work,” he says. “They focus on healthy animals, but that isn’t the end in itself. The main thing here is the living standards of extremely disadvantaged people, which is a much broader issue. Since my daughter died 10 years ago during a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan, I’ve been working towards a more just world.” 

I am convinced that we are all responsible for our actions, and that everything we do has consequences

- Francis De Beir

Dr Meerschaert adds that DZG simultaneously works on three levels: people, animals and nature. “That’s what I find most exceptional,” she says. “Veterinary medicine is extremely important, of course, because the animals have to stay healthy. As a vet, I find the combination of healthy, sustainable livestock farming and the improvement of the standard of living of livestock farmers tremendously exciting.”

The two ambassadors will be keeping a record of their voyage in a blog on the DZG website. There, shortly before departure, De Beir explained his motivation for going on the trip. “I am convinced that we are all responsible for our actions, and that everything we do has consequences. Even steps in the right direction have consequences. The work that DZG does is exceptional and has only good consequences, and I want to see it with my own eyes and describe it further in the days to come.”

The four rabbits will now go to live with vet Jean-Claude Ngizwenayo in Butare in the south of the country. There they will help replenish the stock of California rabbits whose offspring are used to supply families and breeders across the country.

Photo courtesy DZG

The Belgian non-profit Veterinarians Without Borders has put four rabbits on a plane to Rwanda, with the hopes of improving local animal health, and the living standards of the country’s farmers.

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