Meet the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis), an endangered species that until last year, had not been seen in 20 years.
Discovered in 1983 and formally described three years later, the species had to wait another 10 years to be properly studied in its cliff-face homeland atop China’s Tian Shan Mountains in the northwest province of Xinjiang. In its 32 years on the record, just 29 individuals have been spotted, and it’s thought that the 2,000 or so adults estimated to exist back in the early 1990s has dwindled to less than half this, due to habitat loss and severely fragmented populations. A survey carried out between 2002 and 2003 turned up zero Ili pikas in 57 percent of the locations they’d been known to inhabit 20 years previously.
Needless to say, these little guys are in some serious trouble.
The image above was taken by Weidong Li from the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography, who had originally discovered the species. With a team of volunteers, Li had been scouring the mountains for signs of Ili pikas in early 2014, and as they were setting up their camera traps, they had an encounter with the curious fellow in the image above. “They found it hiding behind a rock, and they realised they had found the pika,” one of the team, Tatsuya Shin, told Carrie Arnold at National Geographic. “They were very excited.”
The Ili pika is one of the largest of the pika species, growing up to 250 grams and 20 centimetres long. Like other pika species, it’s evolved to live in cold climates, and makes its dens and burrows in the small crevices that cut into rocky mountainsides and cliff-faces. Pikas are known for the adorable peeps they make when they’re trying to communicate to each other, but for whatever reason, the Ili pika doesn’t seem to vocalise. (Although scientists have only seen 29 of them, so maybe they were just the quiet ones.)