Ili Pika: Scientists Photograph Extremely Rare, Teddy Bear-like Mammal For The First Time In 20 Years

A mammal that has been eluding the lenses of researchers across the world for well over two decades was finally photographed late last year, reports National Geographic.

According to the report, the animal known as Ili Pika is a small, mountain-dwelling mammal that closely resembles a teddy bear. Closely related to rabbits, the Ili Pika is one of the cutest animals you might never come across — just because they are so rare. While researchers knew the Ili Pika lived in the Tianshan Mountains situated in northwestern China, they were unable to photograph any specimen for the past 20 years — until last summer, that is.

The scientific name of the Ili Pika is the Ochotona iliensis. It was discovered just over 30 years ago by accident in 1983. The scientist who saw the Ili Pika for the first time was researcher Weidong Li, who currently works at the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography. Since its discovery, only 29 live individuals of the species have been spotted, and the last time it was photographed was in the mid-90s. Researchers still do not have a clue regarding the ecology of the animal or its behavior and breeding patterns.

Then, in the summer of 2014, a team of researchers, including the Ili Pika’s original discoverer, went on an expedition along with like-minded volunteers in search of the ever elusive Ili Pika. One day, as the team was busy setting up camera traps to capture the elusive mammal, without warning the Ili Pika made a rare appearance. According to naturalist Tatsuya Shin, who was a part of the group, the animal was spotted hiding behind a rock. The group quickly realized that they had found the ever-elusive Ili Pika. Without wasting any time, Weidong Li captured a photograph of the rare mammal once again — after two decades!

According to Nature World News, the discovery of the Ili Pika was accidental as well. Back in 1983, the Chinese government had sent Weidong Li to the Xinjiang province of China to study the kinds of diseases and natural resources that the area had in store. It was during this trip that Weidong Li spotted the Ili Pika for the first time. He described the Ili Pika to be a mammal that was about 20 centimeters long. It had a gray colored fur with small brown spots. Weidong managed to catch a specimen that was sent to an academy, which confirmed that the animal was a hitherto undiscovered species.

Bolstered by the discovery, Li made several subsequent trips to the area — one during the same year (1983) and another in 1985. Subsequent studies showed that there were an estimated 2,000 Ili Pika’s living in the mountainous regions of China. It was also deduced that the Ili Pika was related to other species of Pika that are found living in the mountainous regions of North America.

The Ili Pika is thought to be very sensitive to climate changes and current estimates are a lot lower than the 2,000 individuals earlier thought to be living in China. Strangely, the Chinese government has not listed the Ili Pika to be a creature vulnerable to extinction and lists it only as an endangered species. In fact, in the not too recent past, they even made proposals to exterminate the Ili Pika altogether because it was considered a pest.

[Image Via Li Weidong/Wikimedia Commons]