In the Tianshan mountains, of northwest China, lives a curious-looking animal, named Ili pika, that is known for its elusiveness. Technically called Ochotona iliensis, the species belongs to the Ochotonidae family of mammals, and is believed to be a distant relative of rabbit. What is more, this adorable furry animal has been recently spotted for the first time in two long decades.
The Ili pika is affectionately called “magic rabbit”, thanks to its very skillful disappearing acts. Endemic to the Tianshan mountain range in the Xinjiang province, the teddy bear-like critter was discovered, almost by accident. It was when the Chinese government sent Weidong Li to survey the flora and fauna of Jilimalale Mountain that the local conservationist came across this previously-unidentified species. Measuring up to 20 cm in length, the creature sports a pair of large ears and is covered with light gray fur.
Preferring higher altitudes to lowlands, the Ili pika is a herbivore, feeding on grass, shrubs and other small plants. Since its discovery in 1983, the extremely shy mammal has been spotted only 29 times. After conducting several unsuccessful trips to look for the furry critter, Li and a group of volunteers finally located one last summer. While the team was busy setting up the equipment, Li spotted a pika slowly appearing from a gap within the mountain. Tatsuya Shin, a Chinese scientist working alongside Li, said jubilantly:
They found it hiding behind a rock, and they realized they had found the pika. They were very excited.
A 1990s survey estimated the Ili pika population as consisting of 2,000 individuals. However, years of research has led Li to conclude that less than 1,000 of these animals actually survive today. While very little is known about the mammal’s ecology and living habits, the International Union for Conservation of Nature believes that rapid global warming, increasing grazing pressure on vegetation and air pollution has caused a staggering 70-percent decrease in its population. Although the species has been recognized as “vulnerable to extinction”, the country’s government has yet to take any significant conservation action. Li, an employee of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, was reported saying:
I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered. If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty. 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.