Native to a remote region of China, this tiny mammal, known as the Ili pika, doesn’t know it’s a member of an endangered species – and neither do most people.
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, says conservationist Li Weidong.
Li discovered the pika, formally known as Ochotona iliensis, in 1983 and named it after his hometown, Ili.
Last July, Li spotted and photographed the elusive creature for the first time since the early 1990s. He estimates its numbers have declined by almost 70% since its discovery.
“I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered,” he told CNN. “If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty.”
In 2008, the animal was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature but there’s no official organization or team dedicated studying or protecting it, according to Li.
The mammal, only 20 centimeters long, lives on sloping bare rock faces and feeds on grasses at high elevations. Li says the pika’s habitat has been affected by global warming.
Due to rising temperatures, glaciers have receded and the altitude of permanent snow has risen in the Tianshan mountains, forcing the pikas to gradually retreat to mountain tops, Li said.
Ili pikas were originally found at elevations between 3,200 to 3,400 meters, he said. Now they have retreated to elevations of 4,100 meters.
“They have nowhere else to retreat,” he added.
It’s also a solitary animal and is not as vocal as other pika species, so if predators are near, Ili pikas are not able to alert each other, Li said.
Disease may also be a factor in its decline.