Rarer than pan­das

The man who named, pro­tected en­dan­gered Ili pikas to re­tire after 35 years

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Global Times

For the past three decades, Li Wei­dong, aged 63 and a na­tive of Xin­jiang Uyghur Au­tonomous Re­gion, has been search­ing for and pro­tect­ing an an­i­mal en­demic to the Tian­shan re­gion of North­west China that is rarer than gi­ant pan­das.

In 1983, Li dis­cov­ered the Ili pika, a furry mouse-like an­i­mal from the pika fam­ily, in the rocks of the Tian­shan Moun­tains. For the next 35 years, Li de­voted him­self to the pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the shrink­ing species, which num­bers fewer than 1,000 in China.

This July, he led a team to Xin­jiang’s Jinghe and Nilka coun­ties for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Ili pika’s habi­tat. Since 2002, Li has been do­ing such field sur­veys once every four years. How­ever, this might be his last time due to his age.

“Field stud­ies re­quire us to work on top of the Tian­shan Moun­tains. At my age, I can only work sev­eral more years. I hope more young peo­ple can suc­ceed our job,” he told the au­di­ence on Yixi, a speech shar­ing plat­form sim­i­lar to TedX.

Find­ing the Ili pika

One morn­ing in July 1983, when Li, then an epi­demic pre­ven­tion of­fi­cer, was do­ing field work in Nilka county, Xin­jiang, he ac­ci­den­tally spot­ted a small furry an­i­mal rac­ing past in front him in the rocks of the Tian­shan Moun­tains.

Back then, Li’s job was to search for ro­dents in ru­ral ar­eas and check if they car­ried any plague or other dis­eases. But the mo­ment he saw the an­i­mal that looked like a cross be­tween a mouse and a rab­bit with big round ears, round eyes and a small tail, he knew it was dif­fer­ent from any­thing he had ever seen.

He brought a sam­ple of the an­i­mal down from the moun­tains, and checked all the lists of ro­dents. He didn’t find a sin­gle an­i­mal that matched the one he just saw. He then con­sulted ex­perts from the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, and no one knew what it was.

Li re­al­ized that he may have found a new species. But only one sam­ple wasn’t enough. In the three years that fol­lowed, Li searched for the an­i­mal in the Tian­shan Moun­tains, hop­ing he could find more of it to prove the ex­is­tence of the species.

Through his re­search, Li man­aged to piece to­gether the traits of the an­i­mal. It lives in an al­ti­tude be­tween 2,800 me­ters and 4,100 me­ters on the Tian­shan Moun­tains, doesn’t drink, and it feeds on rare moun­tain veg­e­ta­tion such as Tian­shan xuelian, a rare white flower, and Arc­tic root. They are soli­tary an­i­mals. Li had never seen two Ili pikas ap­pear at the same time.

The high at­ti­tude of their habi­tat means Li of­ten have to climb moun­tains to search for the an­i­mal.

He usu­ally rides a horse to find the Ili pika on top of the moun­tains. Once, due to heavy mist, he got lost in the moun­tains at an al­ti­tude of 3,400 me­ters. After the mist cleared, he sud­denly spot­ted the an­i­mal again.

Since Li was born and raised in Ili, Li de­cided to name the an­i­mal Ili pika.

In or­der to learn more about their liv­ing range, habi­tat and traits, Li changed his job from the dis­ease pre­ven­tion de­part­ment to field re­search on the an­i­mal.

Over the past three decades, he went through al­most every inch of the Tian­shan Moun­tains in or­der to study the habi­tat of the Ili pika.

Sanc­tu­ary needed

From 1992 to 2014, de­spite his ef­forts to search for the an­i­mal, Li and his team didn’t spot a sin­gle Ili pika in the wild, an alarm­ing sig­nal. Over the past 35 years, Li es­ti­mated the pop­u­la­tion of Ili pika has shrunk from 3,300 in 1992 to an es­ti­mated less than 1,000.

Over time, Li’s at­ti­tude to­ward how to pre­serve the an­i­mal changed.

In the be­gin­ning, Li did not want the Ili pika to be known to the out­side world as he feared the cute an­i­mal would at­tract poach­ers or vis­i­tors who want to see or breed it. His phi­los­o­phy was no in­ter­fer­ence and no sanc­tu­ary for the an­i­mals – al­low­ing them to live freely.

How­ever, cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal changes brought a cri­sis to the rare an­i­mal. As the area of glaciers in the Tian­shan Moun­tains shrank, and as grass­lands de­cline, herds­men had to climb higher and higher up the moun­tain to walk their herds.

This brought shep­herds, an en­emy of the Ili pika. The an­i­mals are also threat­ened by in­breed­ing and nat­u­ral preda­tors such as snow leop­ards.

In 2002, he found that among the 14 ob­ser­va­tion points lo­cated in seven cities and coun­ties to the south and north of the Tian­shan Moun­tains, the Ili pika could only be ob­served in two of th­ese ob­ser­va­tion points.

“With 71 per­cent of their habi­tat lost, their pop­u­la­tion dropped quickly and this is a very dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion,” Li told China Youth Daily.

In 2005, the Ili pika was in­cluded in China’s Redbook of en­dan­gered an­i­mals. In 2008, it was listed as en­dan­gered on the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) Red List.

Start­ing from 2015, Li es­tab­lished a work­shop on the pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the Ili pika. He man­aged to get the sup­port of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment to es­tab­lish two sanc­tu­ar­ies for the an­i­mal.

Many herds­man in the sanc­tu­ary in Jinghe have now be­come vol­un­teers at his work­shop. They help Li look after the cam­eras set up in the wild to ob­serve the an­i­mal, and pre­vent poach­ers from en­ter­ing.

Li also in­vited de­sign­ers to turn the im­age of the Ili pika into car­toons so as to at­tract the at­ten­tion of young peo­ple, so they would value and help pro­tect the an­i­mal.

Pho­tos: screen­shot from Yixi

An Ili pika

Li Wei­dong in a speech

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