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China’s Rare Endangered Rabbit: The Lli Pika

When one goes to China what does they usually think of? Maybe it is the majestic Great Wall or the fantasy tales of the Chinese dragon? Just the rich history of the culture itself would leave one in wonder! However there is one thing about it that has everyone going crazy! It is called the Lli Pika or otherwise known as China’s “Magic Rabbit”. It is found only in China and is highly endangered possibly close to extinction.

They are now considered to be rarer than pandas and this is saying something! Protection is needed for them.

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Many of us have probably heard of the term endangered species or animals close to extinction. An endangered species is any species that has been categorized by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) that is more than likely to become extinct. Endangered is considered to be the second sever conservation status for wild animals after critically endangered. In 2012 the IUCN Red List featured 3079 animal and 2655 plant species as endangered worldwide. Back in 1998 those figures were 1102 for animals and 1197 for plants. In fact as early as the 1800s, humans began noticing the decline of certain species of animals in their natural habitats. The whopping crane is one famous example. It was once abundant from Canada to Mexico but in 1941 that only 16 birds remained in the wild.

Discovery of China’s Magic Rabbit

So how did the discovery of this magic rabbit occur? It was made by retired conservationist Li Weidong in 1983. For 30 years he has worked on a mission to document the rabbit and protect it. There are less than 1,000 of the rabbits left. Weidong recalls his first encounter passionately. He was on a mountain climb and he describes he saw the shadow of a small creature passing by.

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He sat down on rocks and then he saw two bunny ears emerge from them. It just stared and blinked at him.

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He says it was one of the most beautiful and weird creatures he has ever seen. With the scientific name Ochotona iliensis, the Ili Pika will live in holes between bare rocks at an altitude that is between 2,800m to 4,000m. They live in cold plateaus and feed on the herbs found in the Tian Shan Mountains. When Li made the discovery, he and his fellow conservationists decided to take measures to protect the pikas. However they did not want publicity surrounding what they were doing.

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In 1983, when Li first came across the mammal, basically it was not known. Li had it declared a new species two days later. Li and his team did a number of studies from 1983-1993 which included a census of the 14 different sites. In 1992 Li had to leave and do work in Urumiqi for the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection. Nothing was done during Li’s absence and no pika were seen either. It was not until 2002-2003 that Li and his team did a fresh census. 37 days were spent looking for the pikas which involved seven trips. The team came up empty handed in regards to pikas sightings. Despite spending 37 days searching the mountains for the pikas on seven separate trips, they came up empty handed. They were able to analyze snow droppings and snow tracks however! By looking at this Li and Andrew Smith were able to conclude that a huge decline in the pika population occurred.

They calculated for 2003 that there were around 2,000 of them in the wild. This was down from 2,900 from the 1983-1993 readings. As for the declines they blame it on humans. More specifically the increase in human population pressure. People who live on pastor land have their sheep and horses and etc graze on alpine vegetation and they are having them at higher elevations in Tian Shan. As a result they are competing with the pikas as well as taking away their food source. Dogs that accompany these pastor land owners catch these pikas as well. Climate change is suggested to have a role as well. Pikas are adapted to cold and high altitude areas. With the planet warming up they are forced to go to higher elevations. On many of these higher peaks they just don’t have enough room left to climb. Therefore in 2005 it was recommended that the species be moved to the endangered species list.

Now in 2016 there are 1,000 left in the wild. Li has taken on the burden himself of funding research in regards to the Ili pika on top with donations and help from several organizations. As of today he has spent more than $32,000 of his funds towards this research. Even though Li has put forth much effort toward spreading awareness about the pika’s plight, the animal still is not included on China’s List of Wildlife under Special State Protection which is quite nuts! “This tiny species could be extinct any time,” the conservationist told CNN. “They don’t exist in the sites where they used to be anymore.” Better recommendations need to come into play in order to protect them. The Department for Wildlife and Forest Plants Protection admitted it was in the process of updating its endangered species list to include the pika however it declined to give further details as to why it did not. Otherwise the magic rabbit will disappear forever.

What can further be done in regards to better protection of this animal?

Yes some endangered species laws are controversial. Controversy areas of concern include the criteria for placing a species on the list, criteria for removing it from the list, and whether restrictions on land development calls for “taking” of land by the government and also the question of whether private landowners should be compensated for the loss of uses of their lands and also finally obtaining reasonable exceptions to protection laws. Lobbying from hunters and industries like the petroleum industry, construction industry, and logging has been an obstacle in establishing endangered species laws. Listing a species as endangered could also make the species more desired by poachers and animal collectors. However in the case of the pika the case calls for most extreme conservation measures.

Image credits: Li Weidong

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