By now perhaps you've heard of the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis), a tiny little mammal that's so rare that it became endangered almost as soon as it was discovered.

The critter, an adorable cross between a teddy bear and an Ewok, is not a bear at all but a lagomorph, which means its closest relatives are rabbits and hares. The species was first discovered by Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography researcher and lagomorph conservation biologist Weidong Li in 1983 and not formally described in the scientific literature until three years later. It took him that long to collect enough specimens to be sure it was indeed new to science. Its range is limited to the Tian Shan Mountains in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. 

The animal is brightly coloured, with large reddish-brown spots on its forehead and around its neck. It's large for a pika, weighing up to 250 grams, with "ears and hind feet that are among the largest" of the pikas, according to Li. Over nearly a decade of research, Li and his colleagues discovered that the herbivore is fairly asocial, which is unusual for pikas, and if it has any vocalizations, nobody has ever heard them. That's about the extent of our knowledge on the behaviour and ecology of this mysterious species. Only 29 individuals have ever been seen, though an early 1990s estimate suggested that there were perhaps 2,000 living mature ili pikas.

What we do know is that ili pikas live in what must be one of the most forbidding habitats on the planet, making their homes inside the narrow cracks and within holes on rock walls and cliff faces, at elevations between 2,800 and 4,100 metres. 

After a decade in which Li and his colleagues turned their scientific attention to other matters, they decided it was time to conduct another census of the species. In the summers of 2002 and 2003, the researchers didn't actually manage to see any living pikas, but they did find evidence of their presence in some spots.

Unfortunately, in eight of the fourteen sites they explored, the researchers found no evidence of pikas. And it appeared that they had declined in number (compared with prior censuses) in all remaining sites but one. "In only one region were there signs of presence abundant and equal to earlier censuses of the Ili pika," wrote Li. Altogether, the pikas had disappeared from nearly 60% of their known range. 

That's why, in 2005, Li estimated that the entire species was contained within a 20,000 square kilometre region, though only 17% of that space contained suitable habitat. In 2008, the species was classified as 'Endangered' by the IUCN.

Together with Arizona State University researcher Andrew T. Smith, Li speculated that the species was probably not all that abundant to begin with. For the declines, they place the blame squarely on human behaviour. "Now, with increasing human population pressure, pastoralists commonly graze their sheep and horses at higher elevations in the Tian Shan [than previously]. The livestock not only eat alpine vegetation, thus competing with pikas, but dogs accompanying the pastoralists and their herds may also catch pikas," they write. They also suggest that climate change could have a role, as pikas are adapted for cold, high-altitude areas. As the planet warms, the pikas are forced to higher and higher elevations. On many peaks, there's simply not enough mountain left for them to climb.

Combine these pressures with the fact that the pikas don’t reproduce very fast, and you have the perfect recipe for extinction.

In 2014, the researchers went out for another look. That summer, Li managed to spot an ili pika and snap a few photos, confirming that the species still clings to existence in some spots. But the outlook isn't hopeful. 

As Carrie Arnold wrote this week at National Geographic News, "there are no concerted efforts under way to help the Ili pika. Li said he hopes to change that, and use the rediscovery of the animal to create conservation areas for the species." 

Could Ili pikas replace giant pandas as the most charismatic of endangered species in China? They certainly are cute enough.

Top header image: Tim Deering, Flickr