Paradise Losing in Hawaii

Times Staff Writer

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.

* Scientists and sharpshooters work hand in glove to blast wild goat herds that eat rare plants and erode slopes, giving invasive species a foothold. On the Big Island, scientists capture a single wild goat, affix a homing beacon and turn the animal loose. When the "Judas goat" rejoins the herd, helicopters ferry sharpshooters to canyons and shoot animals whose location has been betrayed.

* Schoolchildren are recruited as anti-ant agents on the Big Island. Dan "the ant man" Gruner, a University of Hawaii graduate student, assigns 500 schoolchildren to find ants. No social insects are native to Hawaii. The children leave peanut butter-coated chopsticks outside and report ant colonies to authorities, who poison the pests.

If Hawaii ever adopted Amber alerts, they might be used to locate snakes. Reptiles are not native to the islands, and are particularly loathed by Hawaiians, in part because they pose a mortal threat to birds.

It is a crime to own a snake here, although 13 sightings were reported last year and three snakes were confiscated, including a python stuffed into an airport collection box. Inspectors use beagles to sniff the landing gear of some arriving planes, so wary are they of snakes.

Brown tree snakes are a chief concern and have been known to travel in landing gear. On Guam, they virtually wiped out the island's birds; they also inflict venomous bites and cause one of every four power outages when they slither across power lines.

When the alien invaders can't be kept out, Hawaiians attempt to throw up defenses to protect the native species that remain.

On a ridge overlooking a military base in Oahu's Makua Valley, ecologists have erected a veritable Maginot Line for a mollusk. Inside a fortified perimeter lives one of the last substantial remaining colonies of banded tree snails. Once so prolific they dripped from trees in dense clusters and were used by natives to make leis, the tiny creatures are now endangered and surrounded by a 4-foot-high plywood barricade.

The barrier is rimmed with a trough of salt to stop nonnative predatory snails. An electric current and barbed wire keep out rats and other predators. About 150 snails are in the enclosure, which is half the size of a basketball court.

When physical barriers don't suffice, the last remaining refuge in Hawaii for some plants becomes several prominent gardens maintained by human hosts.

Limahuli Garden on Kauai has become a sort of emergency room and museum. New plants are grown there from seeds, cuttings or cloned tissue. Visitors can see an oha tree, of which three remain in the wild, or a lovely white hibiscus thought to be extinct until one was found near a remote waterfall in 1976.

For many plants, survival in the wild is threatened because dozens of birds and insects that pollinated them are gone or disappearing.

Into the void has stepped a lanky, bearded scientist with deep-set eyes. Ken Wood spends three-quarters of the year in the back country searching for the rarest of the rare -- then brings these plants the precious pollen they no longer can count on nature to deliver.

In an example of extreme botany, Wood rappels down 3,000-foot cliffs above roaring seas at Molokai, rope in one hand and a Q-tip or makeup brush in the other, to dab pollen on rare alula trees, which look like cabbages stuck on baseball bats.

The Indiana Jones image makes Wood squirm, but strangers have seen him so much in the media that they ask questions about the environment when they run into him at the Kalaheo Coffee Co. and cafe on Kauai.

As the rain subsides, Wood heads for Kokee State Park and an endangered alani tree, a distant cousin of the orange. Just 12 alanis remain in the wild, and the trail to this one is treacherous.

Red soil is slick atop spiny ridges of the Na Pali mountains. Goats at the edge of the precipice watch Wood's every step. It is a place few people visit, but where this one-time gold miner and philosophy student can be on the front lines of the fight for biological diversity.

Wood came weeks earlier and dabbed pollen onto flowers of the tree. Now he crawls gingerly up into the spindly alani. Wood examines tiny seed clusters tucked in the leaves and grins like a proud parent.

Down from the tree, Wood quips: "I was ready to smoke a cigarette.... I think I'm about to become a father. Soon I'll be passing out cigars."

In a few more weeks, Wood will collect mature seeds to propagate new plants at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Man's interventions here have not always been so thoughtful, or promising.

For example, mongoose were brought to Hawaii in 1883 to control rats ravaging Hawaii's birds and sugar cane. But the nocturnal rats and the day-traveling mongoose seldom crossed paths. Instead, the mongoose became another voracious bird predator.

Like many other island environments, Hawaii's delicate balance is particularly vulnerable to alien species. Before man came, ecosystems were simple, without a full complement of predators and competitors.

That meant native species needed little armor against the environment: Wild raspberries have no thorns; thistles go without spines; and mint lacks its distinctive, minty flavor -- all defense mechanisms originally unneeded in Hawaii's kinder, gentler environment.

Those benign characteristics proved fatal when the native species were confronted with plants and animals bred in the Darwinian rough and tumble of distant shores.

Today, the state's $33-billion economy depends on agricultural trade and tourism, making the growing threat to the islands' plants and wildlife more than academic. Among the commercial crops susceptible to pests are sugar cane, pineapples, orchids and coconuts. Locals worry that tourists could become an endangered species too if the islands lose "our tropical plants" and if they have "biting ants everywhere, and snakes," said Wilkinson, the state's coordinator on invasive species.

One of the greatest threats comes from a pipsqueak tree frog called coqui (pronounced coke-ee). The creature stowed away in nursery plants shipped from Puerto Rico a decade ago. Though no bigger than a quarter, when coqui gather en masse they emit an ear-piercing call that reaches 100 decibels -- as loud as a rock concert.

Complaints are mounting. Lori Campbell, who owns the Rainforest Retreat in Keaau in the middle of coqui country on the Big Island, where 8,000 pack a single acre, organizes "night brigades" to capture frogs.

"I can hear them moving in all around me, and we are trying to keep them out" of the retreat, Campbell said. "When you get 40 or 50, it gets really obnoxious. I'm worried about my sleep ... and my business."

The state Department of Agriculture has tested concentrated caffeine to kill coqui. Sprayed into the forest, it acts like a nerve agent on frogs, but the EPA has restricted its use because of concerns about public health and wildlife.

Meanwhile, the pesky amphibian is spreading faster than the bureaucracy works -- to Maui, Oahu and the Big Island. Officials are resigned to the realization that the opportunity to eradicate the coqui has passed. Now, they are simply trying to slow its spread.

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