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China Might Be Killing Off a Pikachu-Like Animal For No Reason

Officials' effort to eliminate pikas — deemed a pest — for nearly 50 years could be harming an important ecosystem, say scientists.

by Kayla Ruble
Jan 6 2015, 8:20pm

Photo by MichaelGat/Flickr

The animated yellow rodent-like character, Pikachu, from the Pokémon video game and TV franchise, is not a total work of fiction. In fact, many believe the creature is based off of a small mousey animal found in China known as a pika. 

But, despite the rise in popularity of its fictional counterpart, the pika remains the target of Chinese officials who have been carrying out a mass extermination campaign against the creature for nearly 50 years.

China has been trying to rid the country of pikas since at least 1958 — employing a range of different types of poisons — believing the animal to be a pest that has ruined the natural grasslands it resides in. But according to recent research conducted by Arizona State University (ASU), killing off the pika is unnecessary and may actually taking a negative toll on the environment.

Contrary to views that the animal is a pest, pikas are a actually a "keystone species for biodiversity," say researchers Maxwell Wilson and Andrew Smith. This is because of the burrows the animals make, which help increase the rate of water infiltration and diminishes overland water flow rate across the Tibetan Plateau where the species is found.

"When people started poisoning pikas decades ago they thought it would improve the environment, and there was no better information available," Wilson, a conservation researcher at ASU who co-authored the report, told VICE News. "Now it is clear that poisoning is actually causing a multitude of problems."

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Smith, the study's other co-author who has researched biodiversity in China for 30 years, told VICE News that the Tibetan Plateau, where the pika inhabits, is an unique region. The area has 10 major rivers that supply water to 20 percent of the world population, and which also run through to neighboring India and Nepal and to countries as far away as Thailand.

According to Smith, the study found strong links between pika burrows and water flow, discovering that flow was "really fast in areas with pika colonies, and really glacially slow in areas where the pika has been poisoned."

Animals and humans are also affected by the death of pikas, with carnivorous food sources diminishing as a result of China's poison campaign. When pikas die off, their burrows cave in, subsequently killing off certain birds in the region, Smith said. Other animals ranging from weasels to the Tibetan fox, and endangered species like the snow leopard, all hunt for pika when food sources are slim, he added.

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China is not alone in executing mass extermination campaigns against certain species of animals. In the past, the US has carried out efforts to eliminate prairie dogs, and countries like Argentina, Mongolia and Spain have also waged similar campaigns.

"Population extermination is common worldwide for small mammals," Wilson said. "Pikas, rabbits, prairie dogs, all of these have been recognized as keystone species, yet are poisoned within their native range to disastrous effect. Small mammal persecution is not just a Chinese problem, it is a human problem."

On the positive side, Smith said their research is beginning to resonate with leading Chinese biologists, who have contacted the researchers about ASU's findings on the pika. It is these scientists who may be able to persuade the Chinese government to change its ways and end the extermination policy, Smith said.

All photos by Andrew Smith.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Image via Flickr