The Cutest Place on Earth? Japan’s Rabbit Island and Its Tourist Problem

Samuel Reason | January 26th, 2017
travelandleisure.com
travelandleisure.com

Okunoshima Island, located in Japan’s Inland Sea between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku, boasts something that not many other places in the world can – herds of adorable rabbits that are tame enough to approach humans. The island was initially known for something far more serious, however; in the 1920s, the Japanese Army used it as a site upon which to build a poison gas factory. After officials learned of chemical weapons being produced in Europe and the U.S., they wanted to ensure that the nation was also prepared should any major conflicts arise. The island was the perfect spot for maintaining secrecy around the operation, and until the end of World War II, the factory produced literally tons of mustard gas and tear gas. Sadly, many rabbits were used in tests on the effectiveness of the poison gas. It was, however, purely a coincidence, since none of these rabbits survived after the factory was shut down. Instead, when the island was made into a park some time after the war, a herd of rabbits were released. Many generations later, a herd of their offspring still roams the island, a sight to behold for animal lovers and photographers alike.

It’s not all sunshine and bunnies on Okunoshima Island, though – since videos showing tourists being bombarded by the adorable rabbits have gone viral on the internet, tourism there has exploded. That’s a problem, because although feeding the rabbits is technically forbidden, many people still do it, causing the population to explode. (When the rabbits have an excess of food, they expend more energy on breeding and breed like, well.. rabbits.) Now there are nearly 1,000 rabbits in the space of the small, two-mile long island. But since the food source is so irregular, with lots on some days and none on others, and the island’s vegetation (the rabbits’ original food source) is growing ever sparser, the rabbits often go days without eating and are suffering from various illnesses and a shorter lifespan. And to make matters worse, tourists often feed them cabbage because it’s cheap and readily available, but it doesn’t provide much nutrition, and its low fiber content causes the rabbits to become extremely bloated and potentially die. Basically, tourism itself isn’t bad; it’s people feeding these cute little rabbits that has caused the problem. So if you’re ever in Japan, feel free to visit Okunishima – just leave the cabbage at home.

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