If you went out searching for the Ili pika in the moutains of China, odds are your search would be fruitless. And that’s a darn shame. Seriously, look at that cuddly distant relative of the rabbit. Sadly, Ili pikas are “vulnerable to extinction" according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and as such, no one has seen the little critters for two decades. But last July, Li Weidong, the man who discovered the creatures in 1983, was reacquainted with an old fuzzy friend while climbing through the Tian Shan Mountains in central China. With his camera in tow, he made sure to snap the first picture of an Ili pika since Bill Clinton was president.
Ili pikas, nicknamed “magic rabbits,” grow to be about 7 inches long, and they live at cool, high elevations on the craggy rock faces of mountains in China. But like so many other endangered animals, Ili pikas are seeing their habitats gobbled up by grazing livestock, climate change and pollution. To escape these threats, Ili pikas climb higher into the mountains, but they’re running out of room. Li has studied the critters extensively, and he estimates they number fewer than 1,000 worldwide — making them rarer than the panda.
After finding and Ili pika in 1983, Li returned to find two more that year and declared it was a new species. He named it after his hometown Ili. But in 1992 Li left his work with Ili pikas to join the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection in the regional capital Urumqi, and studies of the animals ceased. Then, in 2007, Li retired and set his sights on searching for the elusive mountain dwellers once again.
Labor of Love
Li certainly has an affinity toward the mammals, but it’s a relationship that may not have a happy ending. He told 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."
Li funds Ili pika research on his own dime, and has spent $32,000 working to track down the animals and protect them. Currently, Ili pikas are not listed on China’s List of Wildlife under Special Protection, and Li would like to establish a nature reserve to protect the few remaining Ili pikas. Let’s hope Li is successful, because we want Ili pikas to stick around and warm our hearts for a lot longer.
All photos: Courtesy Li Weidong