The European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus, an important game species in Spain, has declined sharply since the arrival of haemorrhagic disease in 1988. As a consequence of this decline, it appears that illegal and extensive persecution of predators has increased. We have assessed the impact of this persecution on red kites Milvus milvus. Around 90% of the populations studied have declined during the last 3-10 years, and the species' range has been reduced since 1980, particularly in high rabbit density areas (those most valuable for hunters). Currently, stable or increasing populations of red kites are located in areas of low rabbit density. Their abundance in areas of high rabbit density is similar to that recorded during the 1970s, when, after the spread of myxomatosis over Spain, government-sponsored campaigns of vermin extermination were carried out. Although red kites cannot be considered important predators of rabbits, they are disproportionally suffering the effects of human persecution, because of their susceptibility to shooting and poisoning, and a lack of understanding among hunters. We discuss the management strategies that might be used during population crashes of game species to avoid unjustified persecution of predators.
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