With only around 1,000 of the species left, the Ili pika or “Magic Rabbit” is one of the most endangered species on the planet. It is only 20 centimeters or approximately 8 inches long and lives in the Tianshan mountain range in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. And despite it’s adorable, teddy bear-appearance, this mammal is actually related to rabbits and hares, as part of the Ochotonidae family.
Conservationist Li Weidong discovered the creature, formally known as Ochotona iliensis, in 1983 and named it after his hometown Ili. Last July, Weidong spotted the rare creature for the first time since the early 1990s and, luckily, was able to take these photographs.
Weidong estimates that the Ili pika’s numbers have declined approximately 70% since its discover. He tells CNN:
“I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered. If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty.”
When Weidong first came across the Ili pika in 1983, no one knew or heard of it. It was declared a new species when two years later, Weidong found two more of the mammals. For the following decade, Weidong and his colleagues conducted several studies, including an official count of the species at 14 different sites.
But in 1992, Weidong began work with the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection and thus the Ili pika went unstudied, unseen and unnoticed for the next decade. In 2002 and 2003, Weidong returned to conduct a new census of the elusive mammals. But he and his volunteers found nothing, despite 37 days of searching.
Fortunately, Weidong and Arizona State University biologist Andrew Smith were able to analyze droppings and snow tracks, calculating an estimated 2,000 of the mammals still in existence. This number, however, represented a drop from the 2,900 in 1990s. The research was published in 2005 and it was recommended to the world that the Ili pika should be listed as endangered.
In 2007, Weidong retired early to return to studying the disappearing species he discovered 25 years earlier. And in 2014, He and a group of 20 volunteers conducted a survey with infrared cameras, finally spotting an Ili pika. As he attempted to photograph it, the creature jumped and skirted over Weidong’s feet, earning it the nickname “Magic Rabbit” from the volunteers. Although they caught a glimpse of one during this investigation, they sadly estimated less than 1,000 Ili pikas existed.
Weidong funds his research himself, with the help of some donations and grants from organizations. However, it is not lack of funding, but lack of official recognition for these creatures that upsets Weidong. For instance, the animal is not included on on China’s List of Wildlife under Special State Protection nor on the Department for Wildlife and Forest Plants Protection list. In 2008, the Ili pika was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but no official organization or team is dedicated studying or protecting it.
Weidong and his volunteers are calling for the establishment of a nature reserve to help protect the animal. He explains to CNN:
“This tiny species could be extinct any time. They don’t exist in the sites where they used to be anymore…I’m almost 60, and soon I won’t be able to climb the Tianshan Mountains. So I really hope that an organization will have people study and protect the Ili Pika.”
So what exactly is causing this species to disappear? The Ili pika live on the rock faces of Tianshan mountain range and feed on the grasses found at higher elevations. But its habitat is being affected by climate change, as rising temperatures cause glaciers to recede and the altitude of permanent snow in the mountains to rise. This forces the Ili pika to retreat to the mountain tops. Originally, the mammal was found at elevations between 3,200 to 3,400 meters and now they can be found at 4,100 meters up. Weidong tells CNN:
“They have nowhere else to retreat.”
Other potential causes of species decline include disease, as well as the Ili pika’s inability to alert one another of danger due to being solitary and non-vocal.
Images via CNN and Li Weidong.