Ili pika has been seen after disappearing for more than 20 years, and scientists say it’s been one of the world’s longest games of hide and seek. The pika, also known as the Ochotona iliensis, is a type of tiny, mountain-dwelling mammal with a teddy bear face, that eluded scientists in the Tianshan Mountains of northwestern China, according to ABC News.
People have seen the furry critter only a handful of times since it was discovered by accident in 1983. In fact, people have spotted only 29 live individuals, and little is known about the animal’s ecology and behavior. But that all changed in the summer of 2014 when researchers rediscovered the animal.
Weidong Li, the species’ original discoverer and a scientist at the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography, had gathered a group of volunteers in the Tianshan Mountains for some pika searching. At noon one day, as they were setting up camera traps, the team spotted their prize.
Ili pika was seen crawling from a gap in the cliff face, and Li snapped a few photos.
“They found it hiding behind a rock, and they realized they had found the pika. They were very excited,” said Tatsuya Shin, a naturalist in China who works with the pika’s discoverers.
In 1983, the Chinese government sent Li to the mountainous Xinjiang Province to study natural resources and infectious diseases. As Li explored a valley by Jilimalale Mountain, he saw a small, gray head sticking out from a crack in the rock, according to Canada Journal. As he edged closer, Li got a look at its whole body.
The animal was about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, with large ears and several small brown spots in its gray fur. Li wasn’t familiar with the species, nor were nearby herdsmen. Li caught a specimen and sent it to a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who said he believed the pika was a new species.
Although Li couldn’t find any more pikas on a second trip to the area in December 1983, the third trip in 1985 was more successful, and the additional specimens allowed academy researchers to confirm that the Ili pika was new to science.
Like other species of pika found in North America, the Ili pika lives at high elevations–between 9,200 and 13,450 feet–and subsists mainly on grasses, herbs, and other mountain plants.
Like other high-dwelling creatures, the pika is sensitive to changes in its environment. A 1990s estimate put its population at about 2,000 individuals, and it’s believed to be decreasing in number, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Grazing pressure from livestock and air pollution have likely contributed to the decline in the Ili pika, which IUCN lists as vulnerable to extinction. China considers the species endangered.
Even so, there are no concerted efforts underway to help the Ili pika, notes The Spread it. Li said he hopes to change that and use the rediscovery of the animal to create conservation areas for the species.