It’s almost noon, and Christophe Akilimali is finding it hard to walk under the fierce sun. On his head, the 60-year-old carries a bag loaded with grass. He is carrying the load to Kalulu from a nearby village, a distance of seven kilometres. Here in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Akilimali needs the grass to feed his rabbits.
Mr. Akilimali feeds his rabbits fodder made from legumes, grasses, and other plants, making sure to dry them sufficiently. The new feed has helped him expand his herd after a serious disease nearly wiped it out.
Mr. Akilimali started raising animals at a young age, learning to keep rabbits from his mother. She was known as a rabbit breeder in their village. He has no formal training, and, because of this, says he sometimes struggles with new challenges. Recently, he was confronted with a serious disease that has been killing rabbits in the Kivu and South Kivu regions.
The disease spread to the village of Kalulu from Walungu territory. Over three weeks, Mr. Akilimali lost 12 of his 17 rabbits. Affected rabbits have runny noses, followed by influenza-like symptoms. The situation is made worse by the fact that no breeder, civil society association, or veterinary service has been able to identify the disease or provide a response.
For Mr. Akilimali, this nightmare threatens his livelihood—but it has not rendered him helpless. He explains: “It is the complexity of the problem and the horrible silence of the enlightened people in my community that has pushed me to action. My intent was never to identify the origin of the disease, but rather to save the five surviving rabbits.”
He changed the diet of his five surviving rabbits, convinced that diet was a contributing factor in the disease.
Mr. Akilimali says that he used to feed his rabbits two herbs called iragala and kashisha in Mashi, a language used in Kivu region. He also mixed in some sweet potato leaves. But over the years, he had to travel further and further to find the herbs. Often, the few herbs he found were discoloured.
Agricultural engineer and veterinary technician Claudine Mbwine says many wild herbs are becoming less common as undeveloped land is converted into farmland.
After the change in diet, Mr. Akilimali expanded his herd. Since then, he has sold 37 rabbits to his neighbours. He now informs every buyer of the new diet he feeds his rabbits, which makes him a community resource person on breeding rabbits.
The value of the new diet has not been tested and verified by scientists, and the disease continues to affect rabbits in the region. So Mr. Akilimali continues to worry. He says, “Even a small noise in the hutch often wakes me from my sleep because I fear the worst.”
But he is confident that nutrition is one of the essential conditions for successful breeding—and that this is what has saved his rabbits so far.
Photo credit: Monique Haen