Meet the Ili pika, native to the Tianshan mountain range in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China and quite possibly the cutest endangered species known to exist. The animal, occasionally referred to as the "magic rabbit," is even rarer than the panda. In fact, no one had seen one in more than two decades until this little guy (pictured above) was photographed last July, reports CNN.
Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 1,000 still alive, though so little is known about this elusive pika that precise numbers are difficult to come by. They're diurnal, meaning they primarily appear during the day, so it's discouraging that this is the first Ili pika seen since the early 1990s.
Part of their elusiveness can be explained by the remoteness of their habitat. Like most species of pika — a group of mammals related to rabbits and hares — the Ili pika lives only at high altitudes. Since they are sensitive to warmer temperatures, climate change is a major threat to pika species worldwide. As the Earth warms, they must retreat higher and higher into the mountains until they simply run out of habitat left to climb to.
"This tiny species could be extinct any time," said conservationist Li Weidong, the man who took the recent photographs. "They don't exist in the sites where they used to be anymore."
Incidentally, Li is also the researcher credited with first discovering the Ili pika in 1983, and it was his research team that last saw the animal in the 1990s. Li led an expedition in 2002 and 2003 to relocate the species, but was unsuccessful. It wasn't until July of 2014 that Li got another chance to find his so-called "magic rabbit," due in part to an early retirement.
Currently, there is no organization dedicated to the conservation of this charismatic little pika, despite Li's efforts to raise awareness about it. The species is not even listed on China's List of Wildlife under Special State Protection — part of the country's 1988 Wildlife Protection Law.
"I'm almost 60, and soon I won't be able to climb the Tianshan Mountains," said Li. "So I really hope that an organization will have people study and protect the Ili Pika."
Related on MNN:
- Got moss? The pika's peculiar response to climate change
- 15 endangered animals to watch in 2015
- Endangered species: Where are they now?