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Paradise Losing in Hawaii

Alien species have altered the archipelago's very nature. Islanders are struggling to save what native plants and animals they still can.

January 02, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

HONOLULU — The Hawaiian Islands emerged from the ocean fuming and angry, but nature turned gracious and cloaked the steaming volcanic rock with a mantle of splendor.

Forests sprouted palms of extraordinary size and shape, along with yucca-like silver swords and an explosion of vivid blossoms. Birds were so prolific that early accounts recall their sweet and ceaseless chatter. Fat monk seals perfected beach lazing long before tourists arrived.

The archipelago, more removed from continents than any other, remained lost in perfect isolation for centuries. But that changed once paradise was discovered, first by Polynesians 1,800 years ago, then by Europeans more than two centuries ago. Today, Hawaii -- the real Hawaii -- is disappearing, its natural and wild character eroding bit by bit each year.

Increased tourism, military activity and global trade opened the door to opportunistic invaders -- foreign plants and animals -- long held at bay by the broad Pacific. The alien species are turning Hawaii's environment upside down.

Legions of tiny frogs fan out across the islands and produce an ear-splitting screech that irritates visitors. A jungle tree from South America threatens to envelop Hawaii's forests in a darkness that snuffs out wildlife beneath its canopy. Off Waikiki, algae coat coral reefs in red goo.

Native flora and fauna are being devoured by wild pigs and rats, overrun by weeds and starved because pollinating insects and birds are no longer present to spread the seeds of life.

But Hawaiians are not just standing by idly, waiting for the next exotic snake or house plant to push on to their shores.

Alarmed at the threat to Hawaii's tourism, agriculture and ambience, scientists, government officials and everyday Hawaiians -- from schoolchildren to hoteliers -- are waging a multi-front war to save native plants and animals.

One Indiana Jones-style "human pollinator" has even gained minor cult status, traipsing from one island to the next -- where he climbs trees and rappels down cliffs to dispense pollen once spread by birds and bees.

The fight will not be easy.

The Aloha State has bid farewell to more species than any other. It has lost 80% of its bird species -- a greater proportion than on all the continents -- to Polynesian hunters, egg-snatching rodents and avian malaria borne by nonnative mosquitoes among other killers. One-third of the plants that were here when Capt. James Cook arrived in 1778 are gone. The federal government has identified 317 endangered species in Hawaii; California is second with 296, most of those imperiled by habitat loss.

Before humans reached Hawaii, a new species established itself on the islands every 70,000 years. Today, about 20 new species arrive annually, according to state wildlife officials.

The invaders reach the islands aboard potted plants and airplanes. They come in the mail and in the cargo holds of ships, in lumber and on the soles of shoes.

"It's the same story practically everywhere on islands around the world," said Warren Wagner, curator of Pacific botany at the Smithsonian Institution. "It's part of the homogenization of the planet.... Every unique place in the wild is starting to look like each other."

Most people, even many Hawaiians, cannot recognize the transformation. It happens away from resorts, beaches and golf courses. Even where tourists get off the beaten path in search of natural Hawaii -- such as Maui's road to Hana or the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, as the locals refer to the island of Hawaii -- they are being cheated.

Everyone thinks Hawaii "looks really pretty and natural but ... it's all ecological kitsch," said Fred Kraus, a zoologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. "It's the aesthetic equivalent of a painted velvet image of Elvis Presley."

More than beauty is at stake.

Nonnative termites are causing $150 million in damage a year. About 100 types of mosquitoes have reached Hawaii aboard airplanes, leading to reports of dengue fever, a virus that causes severe flu-like symptoms. Agricultural pests from distant shores cost Hawaii an estimated $300 million in lost revenues because of export restrictions, the government estimates.

Yet scientists, government officials and others are responding aggressively to the challenge. Their solutions range from the conventional to the unorthodox:

* On Maui, tree huggers are turning into tree killers. Saws and herbicide are standard issue on Sierra Club day hikes that have become search-and-destroy missions for miconia, a towering tree nicknamed "cancer of the jungle." Miconia was brought here so its broad, purple leaves could adorn yards, but its canopy is so dense that it blots out the sun, killing other plants on the forest floor. Helicopter "spraycon" missions take out the densest stands.

"Every botanist I've met in Hawaii is more interested in killing plants than preserving them," said Mindy Wilkinson, invasive species coordinator with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

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