When it comes to conservation, we often focus on bigger, more iconic animals like lions or giant pandas, and it can be easy to forget about the little guys. Allow me to introduce you to the Vojvodina blind mole rat – it’s tiny, fuzzy, bizarre ... and one of the most endangered species in the world.

True to their name, the mole rats spend just about all of their time underground, and they are perfectly adapted to that lifestyle. Their bodies are cylindrical and streamlined, with no external ears and only a remnant of a tail. They're also truly blind, their eyes covered in skin. Add fuzzy faces and pink noses, and the result is pretty adorable – in a tube-shaped, eyeless sort of way.

The Vojvodina blind mole rat is also extremely rare. According to the IUCN Small Mammal Specialist Group, there are only three small populations of this species in Hungary and Serbia, with a grand total of under 400 individuals. And as you’ll see, even those small populations are in trouble.

"After the Iberian lynx or the Mediterranean monk seal, they are one of the rarest animals in Europe," Gábor Csorba, head of the Hungarian mole-rat protection committee, tells New Scientist. Sándor Ugró, director of Hungary’s Kiskunsági National Park, adds, "They are actually much rarer than the well-known symbol of conservation, the giant panda."

Last year, the Hungarian government built a fence along the Hungary-Serbia border, intended to stop refugees from crossing over. Unfortunately, this also cut right through the habitat of several native species, including the mole rats. Local conservationists are worried about what will happen to the rodents with this already-tiny population (perhaps fewer than 100 in that area) now cut in half.

The wall probably isn't coming down anytime soon, so the concerned team at Kiskunsági Park organised a rescue mission to collect some of the animals and relocate them to a new, safer area. But digging for mole rats isn't easy.

To round up the rats, the rangers disturb the molehills, wait for the disgruntled residents to come by to repair the damage, then dig them up, being very careful not to hurt the poor little fellas in the process.

You can bet that the mole rats are reluctant to leave their burrows, but the rangers have already set up a new home for them: a personal artificial burrow for each rat they relocate. The new digs match the rodents' very specific soil, vegetation and climate needs. Unfortunately, this solution, while hopefully effective, is not simple. "It is extremely hard to find a suitable habitat for these animals; this one took us a year to locate," says Csorba.

So far, seven rats have been relocated. While they are getting used to their new home, conservationists will continue trying to establish legal safeguards for the species, including lobbying the government to restrict the construction of a solar power plant in another mole rat habitat just outside the park. Right now, most of these little critters are living in unprotected areas, so it would be a big help if some of their habitat could be placed under official protection. 

Mole rat experts like Csorba are determined not to let this unique species slip under the radar just because it's small and poorly known. "Based on our present knowledge, the Vojvodina blind mole rat is one of the most seriously threatened, rarest mammals in Europe, the remaining population of which can be wiped out within years unless immediate conservation action is taken," he warns in a Society for Conservation Biology update.

ht: New Scientist 
Top header image: Nemeth et al., 2013