Li discovered Ili pika, officially known as Ochotona iliensis, in 1983 and named it after its place of origin, Ili.
Last July, Li saw and photographed the elusive pika for the first time since the early 1990s. He estimates that its population has declined by about 70% since it was discovered.
I discovered the species, and I watched it become endangeredhe commented.
If it fades in front of me, I'll feel so guilty.
In 2008, the animal was listed as in danger by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but there is no official organization or team dedicated to its study or protection, according to Li.
The only 8-inch mammal lives on stone slopes and grazes on grass at high altitudes. Li explains that the pika's habitat has been affected by global warming.
Due to rising temperatures, glaciers have retreated and the altitude of perennial snow has risen in the Tianshan Mountains, forcing the pikas to gradually migrate to the mountain tops, Li added.
Ili pikas were originally found at altitudes between 3,200 and 3,400 meters, he said. Now they have retreated to heights of 4,100 meters.
They have nowhere else to go he pointed.
It is also a solitary animal and is not as vocal as other species of pika, so if there are predators nearby, the Ili pikas cannot alert each other. Li said.
Diseases can also be a factor in their decline.
With empty hands
In 1983, when Li first encountered the mammal, no one knew what it was. Two years later, Li found two more and a new species was declared.
In the next decade, Li and his colleagues conducted a number of studies, including a census at 14 different sites.
However, in 1992, Li left Ili to work with the Xinjiang Environmental Protection Academy in the regional capital Urumqi.
No study was conducted on Ili pika in the following decade. No one saw a pika, either.
In 2002 and 2003, Li, with a team of volunteers, conducted a new census. Despite having spent 37 days searching for the pikas in the mountains, on 7 different trips, they came out empty-handed.
However, by analyzing debris and footprints in the snow, Li and Arizona State University biologist Andrew Smith concluded that the Ili pika population had declined dramatically. Together they calculated that there would be 2,000 mature animals, down from 2,900 in the early 1990s.
The research, published in 2005, recommended defining the animal as endangered.
In 2007, Li retired to undertake the search for the pika. Last year he organized a group of 20 volunteers to conduct another study with infrared cameras.
This time, on the second day of the trip, they finally spotted a pika, which jumped up and stepped on Li's foot as he tried to photograph it. The volunteers nicknamed him magic rabbit.
They concluded that there were fewer than 1,000 Ili Pikas, Li said.
This little species can go extinct at any time, said. They don't exist in the places where they used to be.
Li funds the study himself, aided by donations and occasional grants from organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
He says he has spent more than $ 32,000 out of his own pocket over the past three decades and has had to campaign to raise funds to pay for gas.
But what bothers Li the most is not the lack of money. It is the lack of official recognition of the plight of the Ili and other Pika.
Ili pika is not included in the list of Animals under Special State Protection of China, under the Conservation Law of 1988.
The Forest Fauna and Flora Protection Department under China's Ministry of Forestry reported that it was in the process of updating the list but declined to elaborate.
Li and his volunteers have called for the establishment of a nature reserve to protect the animal.
I am almost 60 years old, and soon I will not be able to climb the Tianshan Mountains, commented. So I really hope that some organization send people to study and protect the Ili pika .