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 worldís rarest mammals," says Dr. Andrew Smith, a conservation biologist and one of the worldís leading pika experts.
Smith, who is chairman of the Species Survival Commissionís 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 Japanís 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.
On Japanís most northern island, Hokkaido, the breathtaking snowy peaks and valleys of Mt. Daisetsu-- a group of volcanoes whose skirt is covered by a huge primeval forest of fir, spruce and flowersóis one of the countryís only known pika habitats. Sometimes called "The Roof of Hokkaido," it is here where government officials plan to construct a major tunnel into the park.
Morihiro Ichikawa is one of 21 Japanese citizens who are suing the Hokkaido government in what is being called that countryís largest ecological lawsuit. He wants to stop construction on the tunnel that he says will shred the pristine landscape and destroy a diverse ecosystem. In doing so, the grassroots movement hopes to establish stricter laws in protecting wilderness areas and specify the pika as a natural monument.
Although Mt. Daisetsu was designated as a national park in 1934 the Japanese government does not recognize environmental assessments. Under the Japanese endangered species law, only organisms are protected, not their habitats. The plaintiffs are hanging their case on the 1992 Biodiversity Convention which mandates the Japanese government take measures to conserve areas like Mt. Daisetsu.
Ichikawa says the Asian financial crisis may be playing a big role in constructing the tunnel at the last 1.5 miles of the road. At an estimated cost of $83 million, public works contractors stand to benefit most if the work is completed. The Hokkaido government believes the new road will strengthen tourism at Shihoro, a small industrial town located near the park. The opposition says the new stretch of pavement is superfluous, as it will only shorten a current trip to Daisestsuzan by 10 minutes.
On any given day, rows of cameras line the snowy banks of Mt. Daisetsu. Amid the rocky terrain is a colony of pikas scampering about for the dozens, if not hundreds, of tourists who come to watch. The newly discovered Japanese love affair with the pika is a result of a two-year campaign by the Pika Fan Club, one of Japanís largest citizens action groups.
"We now research Japanese pikas and their habitat continuously and inform people that pikas are very precious as living fossils of the glacial age," said Toshimi Ichikawa, Morihiroís wife, who founded the fan club.
The 1,800-member fan club sponsors pika lectures and photography exhibits, and even sews furry replicas for tourist souvenirs. Although cute, living pikas make lousy pets, notes Smith.
After returning to ASU on Sept. 27, Smith says he is optimistic about the week he spent in Japan lecturing about the pika, and talking to government officials and members of the press. "I explained to them how important it is to protect the pika habitat. Making a road to bring people easily to Shihoro could just as easily take them away," he said.
Dr. Andrew Smith
Arizona State University