Rarer and some would argue cuter than the panda, there are less than 1,000 of these teddy bear-like creatures living in the Tianshan mountain range in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. This tiny mammal, called Ili pika is native to a remote region of China and it doesn’t know this but it is considered an endangered species.
The species was photographed for the first time in more than 20 years on July 9, 2014. Li Weidong originally discovered the pika, formally known as Ochotona iliensis, in 1983 and named it after his hometown, Ili. Last July, Li spotted and photographed the creature for the first time since the early 90’s. He estimated its numbers have declined by almost 70% since its discovery. “I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered. If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty,” says Li.
Even after the knowledge of Ili pika’s whereabouts, scientists and researchers have found it very difficult to photograph it. Two researchers, Li Weidong from the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection and Andrew Smith from the Arizona State University went on an expedition to study the Ili pika. After 37 days of effort with seven trips to twelve different sites, they returned unsuccessful.
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 researchers suspect it’s related to disease, increased nearby human activity, and/or climate change. Li and his volunteers have been calling for the establishment of a nature reserve to help protect the animal. “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.”