In the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, the Tianshan mountain range serves as home to an extraordinary creature. It is called the Ili pika, and it just might be one of the cutest faces you’ve never heard of. This tiny, rabbit-like mammal is incredibly difficult to find. Not only are there not many left in existence, but it only measures 20 centimeters across. In fact, National Geographic reported that “people have spotted only 29 live individuals.” (1) Before the latest pictures were captured in 2014, it had been more than 20 years since one was spotted. If we aren’t careful, there may soon come a day where we never see the Ili pika again.
History of the Endangered Ili Pika
The Ili pika was first discovered in 1983 when scientist Weidong Li of the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography stumbled across it by chance. It immediately asserted itself as a special and rare find, proving incredibly difficult to spot again. Li didn’t see another until 1985, two years after the initial discovery. He was then able to declare it a new species, and he and his teams made an effort to study it over the next 10 years.
With limited sightings, information on life cycles, ecology, and behavior was difficult or impossible to determine. However, they were able to find that the Ili pika sustains mainly on grasses, herbs, and other mountain plants, and at the time lived at high elevations from 2,800 to 4,100 meters.
In the 1990s, Li estimated the population of these critters was around 2,000. Therefore, Weidong Li lead a research trip in the early part of 2002 to learn more about this fascinating mammal. They were able to determine through droppings and tracks that the population of Ili pika was in clear decline despite never seeing a live pika. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the species officially endangered. (2) Today, they presume less than 1,000 mature adults are in existence.
Why the Decline?
Li and the IUCN agree that the main reasons for the Ili pika’s declining population are linked to pressure from agriculture and climate change. National Geographic explains that “grazing pressure from livestock” threatens the pika’s primary source of food, driving them to higher slopes for survival. Growing air pollution and warming temperatures may also play a role in forcing the pika’s retreat to higher mountain tops and limiting the environments where their population might thrive. “This tiny species could be extinct any time,” Li said. “They don’t exist in the sites where they used to be anymore.” (2)
The Rediscovery of the “Magic Rabbit”
In 2014, Weidong Li made one final effort to search for the tiny creature. Even though a live pica had not been seen since 1992, they gathered a group of volunteers to head back to the Tianshan Mountain, hoping for the best. Fortune proved to be on their side when finally, after over 20 years in hiding, a familiar furry head emerged from the rocks and even ran across Li’s feet while he was trying to photograph it. The group was so excited by this million-to-one chance that they nicknamed their visitor the “magic rabbit.”
Today, the Ili pika is not included on China’s List of Wildlife under Special State Protection despite its endangered status. Throughout his career and through retirement, Li has put forth his personal effort and funding to protect the pikas he discovered, though no other concerted efforts have been made. With luck, the revival of the Ili pika’s face captured by Li in 2014 will help raise awareness for these precious creatures. Hopefully greater conservation measures will not be too far behind. Otherwise, Ili pika may only be immortalized through the Pokémon franchise, as the character Pikachu was loosely based on this tiny mammal. (4)