‘Meat’ My Rabbits

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For twenty years they literally lived under the shadow of guns. Since its demiltrilisation, rabbit farm in Pattan is now back in business. Shakir Mir explores the potential of rabbit’s entry into our food chain

Rabbits1Over 30 kms from Srinagar, Wussan is a sleepy hamlet in north Kashmir’s Pattan Township. Silence effuses like an emulsion over the village. It is only broken by the call of Starling birds and passengers vehicles, kicking up dust clouds every time they roar past.

Somewhere down the road, an erstwhile military garrison is spruced up. The mesh of razor wire has been scaled down from the walls. The footprint of military is slowly evaporating, allowing normal routine to resettle.

Intrusive presence of armed forces across Kashmir valley weighed down heavily upon the local people. But what surprises is its capacity of not sparing even the benign animals.

In almost every aspect, Wussan is no different from other nondescript cluster of villages it is surrounded by. Except one! It is home to one of North India’s biggest rabbit farms where this fluffy mammal is not only reared but sold for flesh, pelt and wool.

Established in 1979, the sprawling 115 kanals of Angora Rabbit Farm was part of efforts led by Sheep Husbandry department to introduce an alternative for mutton whose disproportionate consumption among meat-lovers in Kashmir had sparked new disorders.

The farm recorded impressive sales for almost two decades but things turned awry when insurgency broke out resulting in army occupying the installation.

“For more than twenty years, they did not vacate,” explains an official from Department of Animal Husbandry. “Rabbits are delicate animals. They need care. Our employees tended to them day and night but when army took it over, they didn’t let them stay at the premises beyond 4 pm. Activities were curtailed and we couldn’t ensure substantial success.”

The occupation of this land by the army nibbled away at the quality of care that was to be meted out to these delicate creatures. “For instance we had to provide them food during evening but since our employees where exhorted to get out before dusk, the animals suffered on this account,” he says.

In 2010 when army finally withdrew, the farm slowly began limping back to regain its lost glory

It has around five sheds where up to 2000 reared rabbits ensconce inside cages. During winters, though, the numbers tumble down to just 500. There are at least six different species of rabbits that breed here: French Angora, German Angora, Soviet Chinchilla, New Zealand white, California and Gray giant. They vary in terms of size and coloration.

A strict regimen involving extreme care is followed by the attendants. “Most of these rabbits are sold as pets,” says Bashir Ahmad, the supervisor. “Many are purchased for food as well.”

The attempt to push rabbit into the conventional diet system also stemmed, in part, from the urgency to alleviate the risk of heart ailments. Its flesh, doctors say, improves calcium deficiency in post-menopausal women.

The rabbits are slaughtered in accordance with Islamic rituals. The buyers are mostly patients suffering from cardiac ailments. Due to presence of very little cholesterol, doctors say, rabbit flesh is often recommended by nutritionists and dieticians.

“Angoras are used to extract fur, wool and even kept for domestication,” Bashir says. “Gray giants and Soviet chinchillas are eaten for flesh.”

With the total staff strength of twenty-one, Angoora Rabbit farm gears up for sales with the advent of spring which signals the mating season of rabbits. A mother rabbit delivers up to 7-8 kits in a year, officials say.

The flabby skinned kits are let to stay with mother for about 45 days before being weaned away and compartmentalized in cages as per gender and species. They are also often interbred to produce colorful hybrids. “Their gestation period is just thirty days,” Bashir explains. At Wussan farm, the mortality rate of rabbit kits is around 33 percent. “We have to maintain extremely hygienic conditions to ensure that kits don’t die in wake of infections.”

These rabbits have been introduced from outside as the very name implies that they don’t originally belong to this place. The farm directly sells rabbits to the customers and no middlemen or wholesalers are normally involved. In many cases though, poultry stores across Srinagar city purchase them at a lower price but charge their customers exorbitantly. For instance few poultry stores at Barbar Shah, Saida Kadal and Nowhatta put a price of Rs 1000 per pair while as at Wussan farm one could buy a pair at a meager 300 rupees.

“After dogs rabbits are man’s best pets,” says Dr Moin-u-din, Technical Officer at Animal Husbandry. “People rear it. Keep it in the drawing room. It is an exceedingly naughty animal.”

Although rabbit’s flesh tastes similar to chickens’ yet some people don’t accept it aesthetically. The issue of acceptability is a nagging obstacle for Sheep husbandry in wake of which they find it increasingly difficult to commercialize its meat.  “It is otherwise a delectable food,” says Moin-u-din. “I once brought it home. The person who cooked it only knew it’s a rabbit. The rest of my family couldn’t make it out and gulped it down thinking it was poultry.”

The department had also envisioned giving fillip to the rabbit sales while tapping to the entrepreneurial zeal of unemployed rural youth at the same time. But the plan has failed to take off yet, even though the department hopes to reinvigorate the industry in coming years.

“Definitely it has not picked up,” he concedes. “Lot of people still don’t know if it is halal or haram.”

Officials though are optimistic that rabbit rearing may well turn out to be a lucrative business since it has a list of advantages over other kind of farming. It is unlike sheep farming where people require more land. “One can do it in even Srinagar where not much land is available,” an official says.

“The problem is only one. Where is the market? The fact is that not many people consume its meat so where do you get its market?”

To assuage these apprehensions, the department plans to open up a sales counter for selling rabbit meat so that they can first popularize it. The move was planned two years ago but then the devastating 2014 floods occurred and threw a spanner.

Officials associated with the project hope to first cater to a certain section in Srinagar city which is “extremely health conscious.”

“They would be our clientele during few initial years until the sale gets popularized enough to be commercialized at par with poultry,” Dr Moin says. “That might open up new vistas for the entrepreneurs who would wish to make a living out of rabbitry.”

Although currently, a two kg rabbit sells at Rs 150, officials maintain that the rates are not fixed yet. “A reasonable rate can only be fixed when returns are weighed against the costs. Presently, only the worth of food that one rabbit consumes till it becomes sellable is around Rs 2000 and yet we sell it only for 150. We are not for commerce. We are trying to promote it so that small investors and entrepreneurs follow the footsteps and push the envelope further.”

Rabbits can grow to optimum weight in just 8 to 9 months besides multiplying rapidly. They can feed even on leftover food as well, making it fairly economical for a budding entrepreneur to a start rearing them. “It would be best if entrepreneurs start with rearing 10 -15 in their backyards at the beginning even if they do it in the city,” Moin says.

But then, the problem of market arises. Pertinently in 2003, the department had allotted many rabbit units free of costs to boost its marketing. But the initiative ended up being a dud. Since rabbits breed prolifically, they produced offspring on enormous scale even as buyers weren’t enough. “Eventually, the unit holders had to pack them in cages and sell outside shrines on Fridays,” he laughs. “If only we get just 500 to 1000 consumers who will eat rabbits only twice or thrice a month, it can become a good market.”

But all the discourse about “failures” aside, figures available with the government illustrate that the business isn’t going that bad either. In the year 2011-2012, rabbits worth rupees one lakh were sold. In 2013-2014, sales grew marginally to 1.33 lakh. Last year, sales touched the record at 2.65 lakh. The department hasn’t raised its expectations, though they are hopeful that a series of marketing strategies will ensure the sales pick up and the meat finds the much needed acceptability.

Another upside of the rabbit rearing is the demand for its fur or pelt which is used to manufacture gloves, clutches and other accessories. However, at Wussan farm, the fur of the slaughtered rabbits is not used. “We don’t have processing facility to preserve it,” an official tells Kashmir Life. “It needs a keeping storage which is not there either.”

There are apprehensions that the fur might well be nibbled at by the mice in case they attempt to stash it away. “In private sector if somebody wants to start rabbitry it might be of commercial use to them,” Moin says. “There are lots of people in Kashmir who manufacture items from the rabbit fur. It just needs value addition and then it will cost more but unfortunately we don’t have facility. But if somebody in private industry goes for it, it won’t make a bad investment either.”

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