The Ili pika checks all the boxes for cute animals: furry, fuzzy and adorable with large, dark eyes. Throw in the upright ears and small size and this species could be mistaken for a living teddy bear. However, the elusive ili pika, a relative of the rabbit, is an endangered species, and if attention is not paid soon to conservation efforts, it may quickly become extinct.
First discovered in 1983, the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis) lives in a remote area of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. Researcher Li Weidong first found these sweet creatures and has since dedicated his life to trying to save them. What he has seen is a shocking decline in the Ili pika's population; these creatures, whom he once estimated at 2,900 strong, have declined 70 percent since 1983, with roughly 1,000 now remaining in the wild.
The Ili pika was placed on the endangered species list in 2008, but it hasn't ranked high on the priority list for many conservationist organizations and research groups. At just under 8 inches long, this little mammal eats grass and lives high in the mountain ranges.
Li believes that global warming is responsible for the decline in Ili pika numbers as warmer temperatures have caused snow levels to become higher, thereby forcing the animals to move up higher into the mountains to survive.
The Ili pika could once be found at elevations of 10,500 to 11,100 feet; now, this species lives at heights of 13,450 feet. “I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered,” Li said. “If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty.”
In efforts to save this species, Li teamed up with 20 volunteers in 2014 to track the Ili pikas and estimate their population. Li spent $23,000 of his own money to fund this research with some occasional help via grants from the World Wide Fund for Nature.
What Li is most bothered by is the lack of recognition of the Ili pika's danger by other conservationist organizations. “This tiny species could be extinct any time,” Li explained. “They don’t exist in the sites where they used to be anymore.”
Recently, Li has made efforts to gain support for establishing a nature preserve for the Ili pika, but thus far, no one else has joined him. “I’m almost 60, and soon I won’t be able to climb the Tian Shan Mountains,” Li said. “So I really hope that an organization will have people study and protect the Ili pika.”
Learn more about the Ili pika and what you can do to help Li's efforts in trying to save these adorable animals from going extinct by watching the conservation video below.