Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Khalid Elhassan - March 29, 2023

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Feral rabbits in the Australian Outback. Rabbit Free Australia

The Decision to Ship Rabbits to Australia

Few ideas have been as harebrained or backfired as badly as the introduction of rabbits to Australia by the British. Except, perhaps, for the plan to deliberately release those rabbits into the wild to breed like… well… rabbits. Knowing what we know today about the harms caused by tampering with ecologies, it seems incredible that the British thought that releasing breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback was a good idea. Just as incredible is the train of logic that got them there. First came the idea to breed rabbits in Australia as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable. Then came the idea to release them into the wild as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.

The British initially viewed Australia as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that outlet was closed after America’s independence. Understandably, the new republic did not want to accept shiploads of British jailbirds. So the British began to transport their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Convicts need to be fed, however. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, the idea being that they would serve as a rapidly breeding food source. Then some folk decided to combine sports with sustenance – a decision that, as seen below, backfired spectacularly.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Shooting rabbits for sport in Victoria, Australia, in the 1860s. Wikimedia

To Say That This Plan Backfired Would be an Understatement

Eventually, some rich British settlers in Australia had what seemed at the time to be a great idea: release rabbits and hares into the wild for sport hunting. It backfired spectacularly. Rabbits, which are not native to Australia, did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as they had in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home.

The consequences were catastrophic. As early as the 1820s, settlers began to complain of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons that allowed for year-round breeding, and natural selection that produced hardier breeds of wild rabbits, their population exploded. By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Australia. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, because of all the inhabited continents, Australia has the most vulnerable soil and is the one most susceptible to erosion.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
An 1884 cartoon predicting the uselessness of rabbit-proof fences. Queensland State Library

The Introduction of Yet Another Pest Species to Australia Backfired as Badly as the Introduction of Rabbits

For over a century, Australia has lived with the consequences of the harebrained scheme to release rabbits into the wild. Ever since, the country has struggled to control its rabbit population. Australians shot, poisoned, and infected the pests with epidemic diseases, to little avail. They also erected fences all over the place, ranging from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences stretching for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it. As early as the 1820s, it had become clear to all and sundry the release of rabbits into the Outback had backfired, and backfired badly. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place that releasing non-native species into new environments might backfire was not enough to prevent a repeat with another species.

As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were deliberately released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting. Within two decades of their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were outcompeted by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other creatures.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Amusing Planet – The Shoe Fitting Machines That Blasted You With Radiation

Bill Moyers – ExxonMobil: More Than 50 Proud Years of Melting Glaciers!!

Canada’s Human Rights History – Duplessis Orphans

Curtin, Philip D. – The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bartolome de Las Casas

French Colonial History, Vol. 4 (2003) – Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History

History Collection – 18 Successes and Disasters Created to Battle the Great Depression

Indian Country Today, June 30th, 2021 – 182 Unmarked Graves Found at Third Former Residential School

Indigenous Foundations – The Residential School System

Iter Newsline 196, October 26th, 2011 – “Proyecto Hueumul”: The Prank That Started it All

LIFE Magazine, February 2nd, 1962 – Humble Oil Advertisement

Live Science – Remains of More Than 1000 Indigenous Children Found at Former Residential Schools in Canada

National Geographic – How European Rabbits Took Over Australia

New Scientist, February 3rd, 1983 – When the Argentines Tamed Fusion

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

Oregon Encyclopedia – Florence Whale Explosion

Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective – Bartolome de las Casas and 500 Years of Racial Injustice

Post Star, The, July 31st, 1923 – A Fresh Air Cage for the Baby

Psychology Today, October 8th, 2016 – The Cobra Effect: Good Intentions, Perverse Outcomes

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Rare Historical Photos – The Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

Smithsonian Magazine, August 26th, 2022 – How Two Dozen Rabbits Started an Ecological Invasion in Australia

Snopes – Did a 1960s Oil Company Ad Boast How Much Glacier It Could Melt?

Vox – The Bold and Beautiful Baby Cage

Washington Post, November 30th, 2020 – 50 Years Ago, Oregon Exploded a Whale in a Burst that ‘Blasted Blubber Beyond All Believable Bounds’

Wired – Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet