Lagomorphs -- rabbits, and their cousins, hares and pikas-- are being threatened worldwide. "Twenty-five percent of lagomorph species are endangered and some are among the worlds rarest mammals," says Dr. Andrew Smith, a conservation biologist and one of the worlds leading pika experts.
Smith, who is chairman of the Species Survival Commissions Lagomorph Specialist Group, has been studying the pika, or rock rabbit, for more than 30 years. His work has taken him to some of the coldest alpine regions of the world, including Tibet, to study the Plateau pika.
"Pikas are one of the most charismatic of all the mammals," Smith says.
Last week, Smith traveled to northern Japan to help in a growing grassroots movement to save the pika.
Generally speaking, a fully-grown pika is about the size of a guinea pig. They have stocky, egg-shaped bodies, short legs, and are almost tailless with little round ears. Their fur-covered feet, but bare toe pads and sharp, curved claws help them climb from rock to rock with ease, whether it is in Tibet, California or Japan.
Fossil remains indicate the pika family is more than 30 million years old. Pikas probably originated in Asia, where all but two of the 25 existing species are known to live. They are believed to have first arrived in North America by crossing the Bering land bridge.
Smith says loss of habitat to man is among the dozens of reasons why furry creatures are becoming increasingly scarce.
So when the Hokkaido government planned to build a tunnel through Daisestsuzan National Park, one of Japans last wilderness areas, it was no great surprise that it was the people-pleasing pika that inspired grassroots action and Smith was called in as their ammunition.