European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) originated in Spain but they are now found throughout most of the temperate regions of Europe, North Africa, Chile and Australasia.
The majority of Australian rabbits are descended from 24 wild rabbits released near Geelong in 1859. By the 1920s, rabbits had colonised most of the southern half of Australia and were present in extremely high numbers over most of that area. Rabbits were established on at least one island off the coast of Western Australia (WA) in 1827 and may have been present on other islands earlier than this. It was common practice for early mariners to leave live rabbits on small islands as a food supply in case of shipwreck or future visits.
Until the successful release of the myxoma virus, and the introduction of 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) poisoning programs in the 1950s, rabbit numbers remained essentially unchecked. During this period they had a profound effect on Australia’s economy. In 1996 rabbits were estimated to cost the nation at least $600 million annually in lost agricultural production. Since the release of the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) the estimate for agricultural production loss is approximately $206 million annually, with an additional $25 million spent annually on management and research costs. The accumulative benefit to Australia's pastoral industries of 60 years of myxoma and RHDV biocontrol is estimated at $70 billion.
Rabbits have a well-documented history for causing severe environmental damage. In WA, they are declared pests of agriculture in both their domestic and feral forms under the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Act 2007. Landholders are required to control rabbits on their properties.