By Jessica Orwig
March 20, 2015 6:08 PM
This furry ball of cuteness is an endangered mammal closely related to rabbits and hares. The species was first discovered in 1983 and individuals have rarely been seen since.
It was first spotted in the Tian Shan Mountains in China, where it makes the holes and cracks of the cliffs its home. Despite other family of pika living across the Northern Hemisphere, these mountains are the only place this Ewok lookalike seems to feel at home.
Although scientists know where to find the Ili pika, it's still extremely hard to get on camera. For example, between 2002 and 2003 two researchers, Andrew Smith at Arizona State University and Li Wei-Dong at the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection in Beijing, completed seven trips to twelve different sites to study population status of the animal. After 37 total days of attempted spottings, the two men came up completely empty handed.
Then, last summer, the man who originally discovered the species in '83, Weidong Li, had a chance encounter with the elusive creature. He and a group of researchers were out in the Tianshan Mountains for, what else, pika spotting, when around noon they saw one and snapped the iconic picture above.
The Ili pika was not always endangered.
In the early '90s scientists estimated that about 2000 Ili pikas thrived in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Although Smith and Wei-Dong did not see a live Ili pika during their expedition, they found the animal's characteristic fecal deposits and distinctive snow tracks.
From this, they concluded that the population is not nearly as robust as it used to be. In their paper, published in 2005 in the journal Oryx, Smith and Wei-Dong, suggested the animal be added to the endangered species list.
"We recommend that the Ili pika's Red List status be changed from Vulnerable to Endangered," they wrote in the paper.
Recent years have not shown any improvement. Over the last decade, the Ili pika population has continued to decline by an estimated 55%.
The reason for their dwindling numbers isn't clear, but Smith suspects it's related to disease, increased nearby human activity, and/or climate change.