Hawaiian Islands Face Extensive Ecological Peril
THE Hawaiian Islands, home to 10,000 native animal and plant species found nowhere else on earth - and the only tropical rain forests on United States soil - face a state of biological emergency.A decade of private, state, and federal efforts have coalesced with the first comprehensive inventory of birds, plants, fish, animal life and habitat since statehood (1959). Due for release tomorrow, the new report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii includes several dire conclusions: * Nearly two-thirds of Hawaii's original forest cover has been lost, including 50 percent of vital rain forests. Ninety percent of lowland plains, once forested, have been destroyed. * Of 140 listed species of native birds, only 70 remain, 33 of which are endangered. Eleven more are beyond recovery. * As of this month, 37 Hawaiian plant species were federally listed as endangered. Within two years, 152 more will be proposed. Among the state's rarest plants are 93 species with no more than 100 known individual plants - including trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and ferns. At least five species have been reduced to one individual. "These three organizations have come together in the recognition that with all that has been and is being done, we are losing the battle," says Michael Buck, administrator of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "The facts are quite sobering." The cause of the decline is twofold: 1) a cumulative effect of land conversion to agriculture, ranching, and residential use; 2) introduction of non-native species of insects and mammals. The state is particularly vulnerable to both as the most isolated land mass on Earth. "Until man came, these islands were lucky to get one new species every 10,000 years," says Alan Holt, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy. The influx of feral pigs, goats, horses, and cattle began in the 1700s. A crossroads of Pacific travel and trade, the islands have seen a dramatic increase in foreign pests in the last 15 years. "Now when a new prey is introduced, it can wreak havoc," Mr. Holt says. Native birds have been hard hit by malaria and pox brought by mosquitoes, for instance. Brown tree snakes, which have devastated bird species on Guam, have been intercepted on flights to Hawaii six times. The banana poka, a passion-flower vine which is kept in check in native South America by feeding insects, has no such predator in Hawaii. The vine has smothered 70,000 acres of forests on two islands and is threatening larger tracts. Loss of forests, plants, and wildlife impact every level of the state's economy and cultural heritage. The report chronicles the danger of losing forests that intercept and generate rainfall, protect coral beaches from siltation, and generate unique materials for clothing, textiles, ornaments, canoes, and scientific study. The islands surpass even the Galapagos Islands off South America in numbers of species evolving from a single ancestor. At least 50 species have evolved from a single common ancestor in Hawaii. To bring awareness to the new findings, study sponsors have adopted a 10-point action plan that includes acquiring habitat and funding long-term stewardship of publicly-owned natural areas. Networks of state, federal, and private areas are joining into mega-reserves large enough to sustain populations of endangered bird species. "We're finding it's not enough just to set aside land in a protectorate," says Dr. Joan Canfield, a botanist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "It needs to be actively managed for invasive plants and animals." Propagation programs have already started, including captive rearing in zoos and botanical gardens. The nene (Hawaiian goose) and koloa (Hawaiian duck) have been bred succesfully. Besides new attempts to halt the flow of foreign pests into Hawaii - modeled after a successful campaign in New Zealand - the groups are lobbying for further landowner incentives to protect endangered species on their properties, increased effectiveness of conservation laws, and more extensive research. To heighten public awareness, the report is timed to precede a major National Geographic television special. Entitled "Hawaii: Strangers in Paradise," the show airs on PBS Wednesday, Nov. 13. "This report in a sense says the sky is falling on one of the most remarkable paradises on earth," notes Kelvin Taketa, director of the Pacific Region for the Nature Conservancy. "We're hoping it can help coalesce the kind of broad-based, national support that can help reverse the trend."