Cape hare (Lepus capensis)

Also known as: Arabian hare, brown hare, desert hare
French: Lievre Du Cap
GenusLepus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 40 - 68 cm (2)
Tail length: 7 - 15 cm (3) (4)
Weight1 - 3.5 kg (5)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A widespread and abundant species (1), the Cape hare is a typical hare in appearance, with long, slender limbs, large hind feet, a short tail, large eyes and large ears (5) (6) (7). The fur is soft and straight (4) (5), and the feet are well furred (6). In general, the body colour ranges from pale buff, to grey-brown, to rich, almost reddish-brown, with white underparts and a black and white tail (4) (5). The backs of the ears have white outer edges and black tips, and may be ‘flashed’ when the hare is being pursued, possibly to confuse predators (9). Hares utter a loud, high-pitched scream when caught or injured, and may also produce a warning noise by grinding the teeth together, as well as communicating through drumming or stamping of the feet, and through calls, such as those given to the young (3) (6) (7). 

The female Cape hare is usually slightly larger than the male (4) (6). The species shows considerable variation in size and appearance across its large range, and many subspecies are recognised. However, the taxonomy of the Cape hare is somewhat unclear, and is under review (1) (5) (6) (8).

The Cape hare has a very wide distribution, being found across most non-forested regions of Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East, and across central Asia (1) (5) (6) (7) (8). It is also found on the islands of Sardinia and Cyprus (1). Populations in China, Mongolia and Russia are now thought to be separate species (1).

The Cape hare can be found in almost any open country, from savanna grassland to cold, stony desert (4) (5) (6) (7). It thrives on overgrazed pasture, and so may be expanding its range in light of an increase in this habitat (5). Most hares do not dig burrows, instead relying on camouflage and speed to escape danger (6) (7), but the Cape hare, in addition to using shallow scrapes in the ground (‘forms’), may use burrows to escape high desert temperatures (4) (5) (7) (8).

The Cape hare is well adapted to living in arid and desert environments, with a low metabolic rate, concentrated urine (to minimise water loss), and the ability to drink more saline water than other hares (10). It may also be able to radiate heat through the large ears (5) (8). Active at night, this species feeds mainly on grasses and other herbaceous (non-woody) plants, but is likely to take bark, buds, shoots and other plant material when the favoured foods are unavailable (3) (5) (6) (7). Like other hares and rabbits, it maximises the nutrients gained from its food by re-ingesting its faeces, so that food passes through the digestive tract twice (3) (6) (7). The enlarged caecum also contains cellulose-digesting bacteria, which help break down plant material (7). 

Although usually solitary, the Cape hare may be seen in small groups in the breeding season, when males may fight or ‘box’ with each other, or with receptive females (3) (5) (6) (7). The Cape hare is a rapid breeder, able to reproduce year-round in some areas, and sometimes producing up to eight litters a year (1) (4) (5) (8). The female gives birth to around one to four young, after a short gestation period of about 42 days, and can become pregnant again immediately after giving birth (4) (5) (7) (8). The young, known as leverets, are born fully furred and with the eyes open. The leverets are able to move around shortly after birth, but are left concealed in vegetation and are only visited by the female for a short period each day to suckle (3) (5) (6) (7) (8). Weaning usually occurs by one month, and the young may reach sexual maturity at eight months (3). Lifespan in the wild may be around five years, although only a minority are likely to survive the first year (7).

The Cape hare remains an abundant and widespread species, and is not believed to be at risk of extinction (1). Although it is a game species in many areas, hunted for sport, meat and fur, and as a pest (5) (6), the Cape hare is likely to have benefitted from an increase in suitable habitat as a result of tree felling and grazing by domestic livestock (5). However, declines have been noted in some areas (1), possibly due to urbanisation, increased hunting, competition with livestock, and a trend towards intensive farming and increased use of pesticides (1) (5) (8). In addition, although it often favours heavily grazed areas, overgrazing, and possibly overextraction of groundwater, can also negatively affect this species (8). For example, in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the Cape hare has been found to be less abundant in areas subject to heavy grazing pressure (11).

The Cape hare occurs in many protected areas, and is also protected by law in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain (1). However, although it is currently not considered at risk of extinction, its complicated taxonomy means that an urgent taxonomic review of the species is needed before clear conservation priorities can be established. Some forms or subspecies may constitute unique populations, or even separate species, and it is therefore vital that these are properly identified and assessed before appropriate conservation action, if necessary, can be taken (1) (5).

To find out more about the Cape hare, and about other lagomorph species, see:

Authenticated (28/07/10) by Dr Andrew Smith, Chair of IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group, Arizona State University.

  1. IUCN Red List (August 2009)
  2. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, London.
  3. Kingdon, J. (1984) East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. Volume 2, Part B: Hares and Rodents. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  5. Chapman, J.A. and Flux, J.E.C. (1990) Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland. Available at:
  6. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  7. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, London.
  9. Kamler, J.F. (2007) Ear flashing behaviour of cape hares (Lepus capensis) in South Africa. African Journal of Ecology, 46: 443-444.
  10. Kronfeld, N. and Shkolnik, A. (1996) Adaptation to life in the desert in the brown hare (Lepus capensis). Journal of Mammalogy, 77: 171-178.
  11. Drew, C. (2000) The distribution of the Cape hare, Lepus capensis, in Abu Dhabi Emirate, United Arab Emirates. Zoology in the Middle East, 20: 15-20.