Fame poses new risk for China's 'magic rabbit'

Story highlights

  • Few knew about China's "magic rabbit" until pictures went viral this year
  • Rarer than a panda, it now faces a new threat: Human attention
  • Man who discovered species says reserve is needed to protect tiny mammal

Beijing (CNN)Rarer than a panda, few people knew about the Ili pika until earlier this year when pictures of China's "magic bunny" went viral after being featured in a series of news reports.

But now the tiny and endangered mammal is finding out the price of fame.
Conservationist Li Weidong, who discovered the species in 1983, lamented the lack of funding for his conservation efforts when first interviewed by CNN in March.
    He's since been able to raise almost $28,000 on a Chinese crowd-funding website, enough to fund his research and conservation efforts for the next year.
    But Li told CNN this week that the tiny mammal now faces other threats.
    People have tried to catch the pika, wanting one as a pet. Companies have offered Li funding to catch the pika and then artificially breed them, Li said.
    "Ili pikas, as alpine animals, can't adapt to the environment at low elevations without special facilities," he said.
    "Would they survive? Their population is already small enough. Human capture will accelerate the extinction."
    Fearing that cameras might disturb pikas, Li said he has also turned away a dozen more photographers who hoped accompany him on his field research in the Tianshan mountains.

    Animal rarer than panda

    Native to the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, there are fewer than 1,000 of these creatures living in the Tianshan mountain range in the region, Li said.
    Li discovered the pika, formally known as Ochotona iliensis, and named it after his hometown, Ili.
    A year ago, Li spotted and photographed the elusive creature for the first time since the early 1990s. He estimates its numbers have declined by almost 70% since its discovery.
    The last time Li managed to take a photograph of the rare animal was in 1990.
    In 2008, the animal was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature but there's no official organization or team dedicated studying or protecting it, according to Li.
    For years, Li has called for Ili Pika to be listed on China's List of Wildlife under Special State Protection -- part of the country's 1988 Wildlife Protection Law.
    The appeal seems more urgent now as more people have laid eyes on the it, Li said.
    Li said he is in negotiation with authorities in Jinghe County, where many Ili Pikas were discovered, for the establishment of a nature reserve to keep people away from the rare animals.

    New findings

    In late May, Li led a team of five volunteers to collect video footage from infrared cameras set up last August.
    Some 30 infrared cameras captured about 16 video clips of the Pika from the two areas over the past 10 months.
    Li said the video clips showed that pikas communicate with each other through their own urine traces and bodily waste.
    "They can tell by sniffing whether another pika is nearby. If it is a member of the opposite sex, they find a mate. If it is within its own gender, they claim territory."
    However, Li didn't find any pikas in the two sites where he spotted and photographed the elusive creature in July last year.
    He said this doesn't mean there are fewer pikas now as footage from one more area is yet to be collected and the cameras only covered half of the census areas.
    Yet it still worries him, he said.
      "We don't know whether it's because the animals didn't come out during the winter, or they were eaten by natural enemies or they died."
      To collect more accurate and complete information, Li said he plans to buy more infrared cameras with the recently raised money and set them up in all six areas.