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Hanging by a Thread

With all but a quarter of Hawaii's native birds extinct or endangered, and its other species dying off faster than the dinosaurs, some island ecologists are risking their lives to save what's left

By Richard Stone and Gary Braasch
Feb 1, 2000 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:19 AM


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Photographs by Gary braasch


On the southeast coast of Kauai, botanist Ken Wood searches for a native plant, the anaunau pepperwort, nearly driven to extinction by invasive species. Less than 200 specimens of the plant survive.

Lele au la, hokahoka wale ihoI fly away, leaving disappointment behind

-Hawaiian saying

One April morning, deep in the Alakai swamp on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, John Sincock and Jim Jacobi heard a sound that no one will ever hear again: a plaintive, flutelike oh-oh, oh-oh, drifting through the trees. Holding their breath, the two scientists crept toward a nearby ‘ohi’a tree and spotted the singer: a sharp-beaked black bird with tiny white throat feathers, an ebony-and-brown belly, and delicate yellow feathers gathered like bloomers on its upper legs.

Sincock and Jacobi knew they were seeing the rarest of the rare: a Kauai o‘o. In centuries past, Hawaiians sewed the bird’s yellow feathers into elaborate cloaks worn by chiefs. But that custom, like most of the birds, died out long ago. Sincock, a wildlife biologist about to retire from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had located the o‘o nest about 10 years before. And now, before giving up his job in the wilderness, he had returned to share a last glimpse of it with Jacobi, now a botanist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jacobi quietly clicked on his tape recorder before the male bird disappeared. Then he made a heart-wrenching mistake: He played the tape back, not realizing the volume was cranked to maximum. Seconds later the o‘o alighted on a nearby branch, drawn to the cadence it had long been pining for. It lingered for a while, then flew away.


The ‘olapa is a target of feral swine, who like to uproot its seedlings in search of worms. Nevertheless, the native tree, whose only relative grows in the Marquesas Islands, has managed to stave off endangerment.

Now a couple of grainy photos and Jacobi’s recording are all that’s left of the o‘o. Nor is it the sole creature that exists only as a wistful memory in Hawaii. Of the 71 known bird species native to Hawaii, 26 have vanished, and another 31 are on Fish and Wildlife’s endangered list. Native plants, too, are in dire straits: Nearly 120 of the 1,000 flowering species are down to fewer than 20 individual plants in the wild. Most of these organisms are victims of a brutal double whammy: habitat loss coupled with a steady onslaught of alien species that prey on the natives or vie with them for food and turf. Today Hawaii’s lush gardens filled with songbirds, orchids, and coconut palms are little more than ecological Potemkin villages, assemblies of alien species that have hijacked the lowlands. Behind its beautiful facade, says Paul Alan Cox, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, “Hawaii is the extinction capital of the country.”

That is not news. Hawaii has been struggling with this problem for decades. But biologists now say that the islands can be seen as a fast-forward to what the rest of the world will eventually face. Although destruction is more gradual on the continents, the same forces plundering Hawaii are likely to deprive the planet of as many as half its life-forms within just a few thousand years. “We are living right now in a mass extinction,” Cox says. That may be a conservative statement. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, predicts Earth will lose a fourth of all its species in the next 30 years. Spurred by human activity, the crisis is occurring faster and could extinguish more species than the gigantic asteroid strike that may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. In rain forests throughout Hawaii and the rest of the world, one of every eight species is already near extinction. To Cox, each species is an irreplaceable masterpiece: “Imagine if I told you that one out of eight paintings in the National Gallery would be destroyed next year.”


In the 1950s, the pokalakala was thought to be extinct, but today some 50 of the native trees are known to survive. In Kauai, Ken Wood gathers their pendulous fruits for planting an arboretum.

Worse, this relentless attrition has long been grinding away unnoticed. “It is an impossible situation to educate people,” says Clifford Smith, a botanist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “The general public just says, ‘So what?’ ” Behind the scenes in Hawaii, however, a loose confederation of scientists and private citizens is finally taking steps to save what’s left of the islands’ biological heritage, from rescuing the dna of endangered plants to fencing off habitat vital to native birds. Jacobi says, “We’re bound together by desperation.”


As if it didn’t have enough troubles already, Hawaii is also in a recession. That has meant hard times for state-funded conservation programs. The Department of Land and Natural Resources must steward half of Hawaii’s land with 1 percent of the state’s budget. Bleaker times lie ahead. “The budget in the next few years will be substantially worse,” Land and Natural Resources chief Timothy Johns warned at a conference in Honolulu in July. Conservation may be “in our soul,” he says, “but we have to find a way to pay for it.”

A coalition of agencies and other organizations has aired a proposal for a $200 million, five-year program to fund everything from efforts to annihilate alien species to rare-plant rescue missions by helicopter. Now they are trying to line up sponsors to pay for it.

“We have to tie conservation to people’s core values and beliefs,” Johns says. But sometimes scientists and native Hawaiians disagree over what to protect. To scientists, for instance, feral pigs are contributing to the desturction of several species of silversword, a majestic relative of the sunflower that blooms once in a profusion of purple, then dies. But to many Hawaiians, pig hunts are a way of life. “There’s an underlying distrust between white guys and Hawaiians,” says Dan Polhemus, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Institution. “These wide gaps are very hard to bridge.”

‘Anihinihi ke ola

Life is in a precarious position

-Hawaiian saying

Steve Perlman, a botanist with the National Tropical Botanical Garden, is not one to idly watch a species wink out. He will literally risk his life if there’s a glimmer of hope of saving a rare Hawaiian plant. Even after shattering a vertebra in his neck in a surfing accident nine years ago, Perlman doesn’t hesitate to rappel down cliffs or bivouac on mountaintops in order to tend to his plant patients. Hawaii’s crumbly basalt is treacherous for climbers, and helmets “only protect your head—from small rocks,” Perlman says, laugh lines crinkling around gentle, light-blue eyes.

Late in July, in the Limahuli Valley of northwestern Kauai, Perlman and Dave Bender, a horticulturist at the Limahuli Gardens, confer over the fate of two ragged shrubs clinging to the side of a ravine. In this rugged land, graced by wispy coastal waterfalls that plunge hundreds of feet into the sea, 10 species are on the endangered list, including a native Hawaiian palm tree. The shrubs don’t look like much: They resemble scraggly office plants ignored for months on end. But even in this valley of the living dead, the shrubs—Cyanea kuhihewa—are in the worst shape of all, the last two of their kind.

“It’s depressing,” says Perlman. “We’re fighting a losing battle.” Under intermittent downpours he yanks out an alien weed crowding the cyanea. Known as Koster’s curse, or Clidemia hirta, the weed was brought to Hawaii in the 1940s as an ornamental plant. Now a helicopter flight over Limahuli reveals a landscape blighted by the plant’s furry leaves.


Unless botanists and wildlife biologists grant them a reprieve, dozens of Hawaiian plants and animals may become extinct.

Some likely candidates (starting from the left): Blackburn’s hawkmoth (three left in the wild); the haha (three left in the wild).

Right:Silene perlmanii (extinct in the wild),the alula; (the nene); the ma’o hau hele;

Given breathing room, one cyanea offers a nice surprise. Beneath a tubular white flower with purple pinstripes—like runway lights for insects—hangs a small dark-orange fruit that may save the species. Perlman and Bender must decide whether to pick the fruit. It’s not yet ripe, so some seeds may not be viable. But at $600 an hour, helicopter rides into Limahuli are an indulgence, and the researchers may not be able to return here for several months. By then, Koster’s curse may have claimed two more victims.

After a brief discussion, Perlman and Bender decide to pluck the fruit while they have the chance and deliver it to the Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, where the seeds can be coaxed to sprout. Perlman won’t be surprised if the comeback bid fails. “You’re dealing with terminally ill patients,” he says. “Some you’re going to lose.”

Still, he never seems to tire of playing the role of a botanical Cupid. A favorite target of his arrows is the alula, a cyanea relative found in the wild on Kauai’s cliffs. Studies have suggested that the alula, which rocks back and forth in the wind on its bulbous water-filled base, is dying out because it isn’t getting pollinated; researchers don’t know for sure, but they think the pollinator is the sphinx moth, a giant rarely seen anymore. Perlman has taken matters into his own hands. Suspended in midair, he reaches out and paints pollen from one alula onto another’s pistil. “They get filled with seed and explode,” he says. 

Perlman and Ken Wood, another daredevil botanist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, have logged more than 1,000 expeditions in the last decade to collect rare plant specimens or at least save their seeds. Paul Cox gloats over the daring duo he inherited when becoming director of the garden two years ago. “We have the best rough-trained botanists in the world,” he says. Cox wants to turn the garden into “a botanical ark” for the South Pacific, to shelter rare species with the intention of restocking native habitats someday. But if the habitats are lost, Jacobi warns, the ark could end up as little more than a high-priced collection of lost species. “We might as well just take nice pictures of them, in that case,” he says. “It’s cheaper.”

For an up-to-the-minute glimpse of Hawaii's ecological predicament, visit www.hear.org, which is run by the Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk Project, a joint venture of the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Hawaii.

H o’olaukanaka i ka leo o na manu

The voices of birds make the place feel inhabited

-Hawaiian saying


Of the more than 13,000 plant species introduced to Hawaii over the past 200 years, fewer than 2 percent are considered serious pests. Those that do cause problems, however, can do so on a vast scale.

Take Miconia calvescens, a tree from Central and South America that goes by the name “green cancer” in Tahiti, where it covers threequarters of the island. Biologists Betsy Gagne and Steve Montgomery launched a campaign in 1977 to get Hawaii to stop importing the invader. But petitions failed to persuade the state’s Department of Agriculture to put the plant on its Noxious Weed List, which prohibits importation, until 1992.

The slogging combat seems to be working: Kauai could soon eradicate miconia, Maui has brought the pest to heel, and the Big Island, with the worst infestation, has set its sights on eliminating 95 percent of the plants by 2006. Still, faster action could have saved Hawaii millions of dollars.

“I could come into Hawaii tomorrow with a whole bunch of plants from Southeast Asia, and as long as they didn’t have any insect pests, I could bring them in,” says Charles Lamoureux, director of the Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. What’s needed, he says, is a broader Noxious Weeds List. Others call for tougher measures, such as a list of plants permitted for import, with all others banned; Hawaii already has such a list for animals. But the state’s powerful nursery industry is opposed to stricter controls, so the chances of seeing new regulations on plant imports anytime soon, Lamoureux admits, are “probably nil.”

Paleontologist Helen James spends her days searching for clues as to exactly when the clock ran out on many Hawaiian species. By studying avian bone fragments, James and husband Storrs Olson, both of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, have pieced together a picture of bird life before the first Polynesian settlers arrived sometime between a.d. 400 and 600. “Nobody wanted to look at these little scraps,” says James, who collects them from lava tubes—tunnels formed when lava solidifies around an active flow. After the eruption stops, the tube empties; the resulting caves, sometimes miles long, shelter fragile songbird bones that wash into the porous floors.

Like a volcanic assembly line, each Hawaiian island was forged from magma welling up from a hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, then inched, with the Pacific plate, in a northwesterly direction toward Japan. Kauai, the oldest of the main islands, accrued over the hot spot about 5 million years ago. The newest, Hawaii, which locals call the Big Island, began forming about 500,000 years ago and is a work in progress: Lava flowing from Kilauea adds new shoreline all the time. Next down the chain is Loihi, an underwater volcano southeast of the Big Island that’s less than 3,100 feet from the surface and rising.

The first pioneers to reach this remote archipelago more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent undoubtedly arrived by accident. They were birds blown in by storms, or spores and pollen swept in by wind and ocean currents. Many of the estimated 270 founding plant species and 300 to 400 insect colonists made landfall on these islands millions of years ago. Their struggle to eke out an existence in the harsh new land nurtured genetic mutations that led to favorable adaptations in the pioneers, thus spawning hundreds of new life-forms. For example, from a single species evolved almost 50 types of Hawaiian birds called honeycreepers, each with a beak or a tongue shaped differently to exploit various food sources. The fast and furious adaptive radiation of honeycreepers rivals that of finches on the Galápagos Islands, another case study in how natural selection marches at double time in the confines of isolated islands.

Some of the cruelest blows to Hawaiian birds, James and Olson have found, were meted out long before any Europeans set foot on the islands. They estimate that more than 50 unique bird species, including a majestic ibis, went extinct between a.d. 600 and 1800, when the Polynesian population was growing rapidly. They farmed lowlands and feasted on such seabirds as the dark-rumped petrel, which were easy to spear in their shoreline burrows. “We have sites with tremendous numbers of petrel bones,” James says. Native life also took heavy hits from pigs, chickens, and dogs—which the Polynesians brought for their dinner table—and rats that stowed away on their ships. The livestock trampled and devoured native vegetation, while the rats gnawed through a cornucopia of native snails. “We see not just the loss of rare species, but a huge loss of abundance too,” James says.

The decline of Hawaiian species accelerated after Captain James Cook and his crew, the first Europeans to visit the islands, arrived from England in 1778. Besides waves of immigrants, subsequent European and American ships brought in rats that, unlike their Polynesian cousins, could scurry up trees and snatch eggs from nests. In a nightmarish incident on Maui in the 1820s, an American ship arriving from Mexico dumped water contaminated with larvae of Culex quinquefasciatus, the mosquito that carries avian pox and malaria. By the early 1900s, most remaining native songbirds had retreated to the mountains, away from the diseased growing communities hugging the shore.

Irked that the music in the trees had all but ceased, a ladies’ club called Hui Manu imported the Northern mockingbird, the Japanese white-eye, the Japanese bush warbler, and at least a dozen other kinds of songbirds in the 1930s. The invaders overran the lowlands and advanced into the hills, eating away at the native birds’ remaining habitat. In addition, just about any kind of plant could be imported to Hawaii, so long as it didn’t threaten the pineapple or sugarcane industries. Nursery plants escaped and became weeds.

Early efforts to protect Hawaii’s ecosystems floundered. An experiment late last century to bring in mongooses to control rats failed miserably: Somehow, nobody had anticipated that the Indian mongoose, which hunts by day, would rarely encounter the rats, which forage at night. Instead, the mongoose nearly wiped out a native goose, the nene. Galvanized by public concern, the Territory of Hawaii organized a breeding effort in the 1930s to save what would later become the state bird. “The nene caught people’s attention; it was somehow charismatic,” says Paul Banko, a wildlife biologist with the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. By the mid-1970s, however, scientists “were really getting tired of hearing about nenes,” Banko says. By then the program had churned out 1,500 birds on the principle, he says, of “let’s make more of them, put them out there, and hope for the best.”


In the mid-1950s, Hawaiian officials imported the carnivorous rosywolf snail from Florida to knock off the giant African snail. The Floridians soon decimated native snails as well.

Today Hawaii’s 900 nenes are “far from recovered,” Banko notes, and their reproductive success is declining, perhaps due to inbreeding. Meanwhile, a high-profile captive breeding effort to save the Hawaiian crow, or ‘alala, has suffered serious setbacks: Crows released into the wild are getting picked off by hawks and mongooses or dying of infections such as toxoplasmosis, caused by a cat-borne bacterium. Only three wild ‘alala and 26 captive ones are left.

Bones of another forlorn bird—the po‘ouli—dot volcanic lava tubes on the leeward slopes of eastern Maui where James and Olsen have done much of their digging. The ranks of the po‘ouli, a brown bird with a creamy tan belly that tears at bark to get at juicy larvae hidden beneath, had already dwindled to about 50 a quarter of a century ago. Today only three po‘ouli are known to exist, dwelling in separate areas of the forest. After an agonizing debate, scientists have decided to move a male bird into the territory of one presumed to be female. The faint hope is that the two will find each other desirable.

“It’s too late for the po‘ouli,” James says. The bird is now making its last stand on the windward side of eastern Maui. Birds that refused to budge from the leeward side died out long ago. James sometimes imagines their coming back to life. “I’ve seen them in my dreams a lot,” she says.

Ha‘alele ‘ia i muliwa‘a

Left on the very last canoe

-Hawaiian saying


Kauai’s Na Pali coast was once covered with native shrubs and trees. Then came goats, courtesy of Captain Cook. Today, the natives survive only on cliffs so steep that feral goats can’t reach them.

Hawaii has lost so much of its native life already, a fatalist might argue, that it may as well lose the rest. Seen as part of the grand order of succession, today’s aliens are no more than tomorrow’s familiar faces. Today’s songbirds are tomorrow’s paleontology project. Today’s lush Hawaiian Islands are tomorrow’s barren rocks. Why fight for the transitory pleasure of seeing a live po‘ouli, when it’s destined for a museum display? Why not let nature run its course?

Jim Jacobi rejects that attitude unequivocally. “Some of the things I’m doing do make a difference,” he says. But the success or failure of his cause will depend on whether he and his colleagues can stitch together a healthy ecosystem—one capable of supporting the natives—from the remaining salvageable land. In that spirit, Jacobi has forged a fragile coalition to build a preserve on the Big Island, on land managed by the state, the National Park Service, the privately held Bishop Estate, and the Kulani Correctional Facility. Safeguarding the sanctuary will mean banishing key alien species that threaten to irrevocably alter the ecosystem. Inmates have therefore built 12 miles of fence to enclose about 4,000 acres of upland koa-‘ohi‘a forest, and state and federal workers have shot and removed most of the feral pigs inside the fences. Signs of pigs—denuded wallows or broken tree ferns ravaged for their starchy core—are beginning to fade.

Inside the fence, a terse sound, something like phit-ier-ieu, filters from the understory. “That’s an ‘akiapola‘au,” Jacobi says. Searching with binoculars, he spots a yellow bird picking at a branch with its sharply curved black bill. Like many other Hawaiian songbirds, the ‘akiapola’au, found only on the Big Island, is endangered. Ornithologists aren’t sure what plagues it the most: predators, disease, or loss of habitat. “The really frustrating thing is not knowing what we can do,” Jacobi says. And yet, the simple fact that the ‘akiapola‘au’s song can still be heard suggests that much can be gained by intervening, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for ecologists accustomed to observing the world dispassionately.

Fencing off a forest is an act of desperation, but at least it offers the ‘akiapola‘au hope of survival. That’s something the o‘o, and many other Hawaiian species, never got.

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