It was 1826. British sailors of the third rate, 74-gun ship Wellington had docked in the Sandwich Islands, on the island of Maui. Tasked with resupplying fresh water, a barrel was then rinsed out in a beautiful stream that flowed down from the mountains.
Reverend William Richards was shocked when, at the dawn of 1827, Hawaiians living near standing pools in Lahaina and the mountainside-ends of valleys reported a new fly 'singing in the ear' and causing itching. His counterpart on O'ahu, Gerrit P. Judd, was a physician and missionary from upstate New York, stationed in Honolulu. It wasn't long before Judd was dealing with the same complaints.
These remote islands had "heretofore" been free of even mosquitos! It's been argued that the introduction of the mosquito Culex quinquefasciatus and with it avian malaria was the single most destructive act in Hawai'i's ecocide. But there's some stiff competition for the title.
Islands Almost Unimaginable
The I'iwi leaving an 'O'hia (Metrosideros polymorpha) tree.
200 C.E.: The Hawaiian Islands were covered in diverse forest types. Large flightless geese and ibises waddled and scurried about the land, eating large colorful berries. On the drier coastal lowlands there were forests of Lo'ulu, Pritchardia sp.. In total there were 19 endemic palm species, endemic meaning that they were found nowhere else naturally. Where the forests began to get a little wetter grew three species of Ili'ahi, or sandalwood tree, with a fourth in the Hawaiian subalpine forests.
Life seemed to drip off every rock and tree with the rain-water. Bird nests were all over the ground and the nooks of trees. I'iwi birds in crimson red with long, quarter-circle beaks pollinated flowers shaped equally strangely. Giant red and white hibiscus flowers bloomed out of trees covered in moss and epiphytes, or plants which grow on trees. Epipetric plants, or rock-growing plants, rounded out the forests, green and bright from canopy to ground. Ten foot Hapu'u ferns provided the home for the next generation of 'O'hia trees, already sprouting before the Hapu'u had died and hit the ground.
Mints grew without mints. Nettles grew without nettles. Plants lost their structural defenses, and the plant secondary compounds that made them so bitter or toxic to predators. Because there weren't many predators. The Hawaiian islands were without any land mammals, including Homo sapiens, save the Hoary Bat. There was not a single amphibian, reptile, (unless you count the sea turtles) mosquito, centipede or ant. It was a thornless, bite-less, colorful, wondrous place.
Once supporting extensive terracing and a forest of Lo'ulu trees, the island of Nihoa became deforested and was already long abandoned by Hawaiian people.
Up to a million Hawaiian people, descended from Tahitians, lived on the islands of Ni'ihau, Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Lana'i, Maui'i, Koho'olawe and Hawai'i (the Big Island). The dry forests had been mostly cleared. Some plants were already extinct. The largest flightless birds, save the Nene, were extinct. Birds and colorful Hawaiian snails become capes, hats and le'i garlands. The Polynesian Rat had long been introduced, gradually exacting its toll on the number of birds left as it ate eggs.
Natural Resource Bubbles
In January of 1788, Captain James Cook anchored his ship at Waimea Bay on Kaua'i and named the island chain after the fourth Earl of Sandwich. One year later, on February 14th, the intruder Cook would lay dead with several of his Marines, killed on the island of Hawai'i for reasons still complex and debated today.
The price of Cook's third voyage on the Hawaiian Islands is difficult to compute in one paragraph, but here goes. Over ninety percent of the population died from the tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and influenza that were introduced. And furthermore, Cook's voyage opened the door to colonization.
Within two years of Cook's landfall, the first Western natural resource bubble started in Hawai'i Nei: sandalwood. Within 35 years of exploitation, the islands' supply of sandalwood was exhausted.
The Brown Rat came on ships, but it was the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) that proved even more destructive than the prior two species. Capable of swimming from boats onshore, capable of surviving the rain and the coldest of temperatures, there was essentially nowhere the rat couldn't go. Forests grew quiet. Then silenter. The rats would even take down adult female birds.
As feral rats, Eurasian boars, goats, sheep, cattle and cats, joined decades later by Axis deer and mongoose, radiated out and upwards, the same pure water that the Wellington's crew were so eager to drink in 1826 grew infested with leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is a deadly-if-untreated disease, resembling influenza. The rats also spread rat lungworm, another potentially deadly infection that's as nasty as it sounds. Cats spread Toxoplasma gondii.
That last pathogen helped exterminate the 'Alala, Hawaii's raven, in conjunction with avian malaria and fowlpox.
American industrialists, mainly in agriculture, overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii. The short-lived Republic of Hawai'i becomes a U.S. territory to eliminate tariffs on goods. Hawai'i is a land of plantations and estates. Dr. Judd's estate in Nu'uanu Valley is the entire home of a species of O'ahu tree snail, Achatinella juddii.
The vast majority of the big trees have been logged. Roaming cattle rapidly extirpate the flowers and native grasses anywhere they can reach. Goats and sheep do the same. The drier, mountainous areas of the islands are overrun.
1912. "[O]ne of the wonder tales of ornithology" according to one naturalist is the dramatic disappearance of Hawai'i's forest birds: 58% just between 1892 an 1930 either go extinct or drastically decline, according to the book The Race to Save The World's Rarest Bird by Alvin Powell.
Sugarcane and pineapple replace cattle as dominant industries. Lowland dry forests are now deserts or at best, canopies of mesquite from the mainland. The streams and paddies of the wet sides of the islands choke, deprived of water for growing sugarcane and pineapple.
The wet forests are not regrowing well. Mud constantly washes off the rainy mountains. The valleys flood.
1936. A woman living on O'ahu picks up two giant African snails in Taiwan, and then stuffs them into her luggage. The snails soon cover the Hawaiian islands, and gravely concern the Territory of Hawai'i's agricultural barons.
1940s. Boys from Punahou School go up Mount Tantalus in the afternoon and collect O'ahu tree snails (Achatinella sp.) by the thousands.
About 90 of approximately 200 species of plant that were once described on Mount Tantalus since the first European explorers... simply disappear.
1950s. The Florida rosy wolf snail, Euglandina rosea is introduced to control the epidemic of giant African snail. Achatinella juddii is last seen at this time. Euglandina rosea consumes Hawaiian land snails rapidly, but avoids the giant African snail.
An estimated 770 Hawaiian land snail species are in exponential decline; 60-90% go extinct. Seventy-five perfect of the endangered genus Achatinella is extinct by 1991.
Harold Lyon and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply are looking at ways to protect water quality in the mountain streams--the city's drinking water. They plant bamboo, banyan trees, cinnamon, coffee and other non-native trees in the mountains. These quickly prove invasive. Australian Ironwood poisons the soil through allelopathy to prevent other seeds from germinating, creating a monoculture.
Ginger, Philodendron sp., Australian tree-fern and other garden ornamentals escape backyards and take over the forest floor.
The crimson red I'iwi succumbs to malaria and disappears from all of O'ahu Island save the top of its very highest peak, Mauna Ka'ala (4025 feet). The 'Elepaio once covered most of the island but now clings to a few slivers of habitat in the mountains. Most of the forested land left on the island is not native forest at all.
Statewide, the Nene is almost extinct. The Koloa maoli, Hawai'i's native duck, is almost extinct. Those remaining interbreed with introduced mallards. Only Kaua'i still has purebred Koloa.
In 1973, University of Hawai'i students on a survey of rain-deluged northeastern Mount Haleakala on Maui discover a previously undescribed bird. It's in the same honeycreeper subfamily as the I'iwi and the Apapane and the Amakihi, descended in a long line from finches that came across the islands by chance, millenia ago. Eventually, a name is decided for this mystery bird: Po'ouli, meaning 'black-faced.' The Po'ouli's an elusive bird, dwelling on the ground, eating snails, fruit and insects.
Feral pigs, a cross between introduced Polynesian pigs and the aggressive Eurasian boar, move into this Hanawi Forest. They root through the understory, turning the forest floor into mud, the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, dispossessing the Po'ouli of its final refuge in the torrentially wet mountains.
In 1989, the ʻŌʻū is extinct on every island except Kaua'i, where only one individual is known. A hurricane is believed to have caused its final disappearance.
In 1995, there are only 6 known Po'ouli birds left. In 2003, there's only three, all are very old, over 8 years of age, all three live in far-apart ranges. It's 2004. Only one Po'ouli can be located. It dies after capture in an heroic attempt to breed in captivity.
The 'Alala exists in captivity, but extinct in the wild.
The Endangered Species Act got to many of these species too late. They had declined in numbers too rapidly before they could be saved. Some were so little studied and poorly understood that there was little chance to stop their declines.
But the ESA is only 40 years old, and some of these species reproduce very slowly. The state's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) was for a long time a game-management outfit, and none of those game species are native to Hawai'i. Of Hawai'i's state budget, about 1% goes to DLNR. Of the U.S.'s endangered species, more than a quarter are in a state with 1.5 million people.
The vast majority of tourists who come to the islands visit O'ahu. Most of those tourists leave without ever seing a wild, endemic plant. They hike waterfalls that have no endemic plants or birds. And more importantly, they do not know this. Many of the state's children grow up never knowing what has truly happened to the biota of Hawai'i.
Incredible work has been done to prevent more extinctions. The Nene goose nearly joined the ranks, but captive breeding worked, and now it is on Hawai'i, Maui and Kaua'i Islands. Several species of endangered Achatinellids, including A. lila are rebounding because of the work that conservation scientists do.
Habitat must be restored, and ways of controlling mosquitos and rats must be found and implemented. Fencing, unsightly as it is, is the only way to stop exponentially-reproducing ungulates, including pigs, from destroying the forest floor. Decades of infrastructure came despite battling the state government and after Reagan the federal government, not to mention public apathy. It's a question of letting the infrastructure work and giving it resources to do its job.
Hawai'i is the extinction capital of the world.
We will never have the same forests that naturalists described in the 1800s ever again. But we can have forests with a fantastic remnant of thousands of years of island evolution.
New problems--newly introduced species, and climate change--are serious threats, too. Warming has already caused the range of mosquitos to expand upslope on Mau'i and Hawai'i Islands.
The question is one of values. Do we preserve the habitat that gives us drinkable water? Do we fund scientific discovery, preservation, conservation? Do we want a world of beauty and diversity? Or, when the world is monotonous and ugly, do we comfort ourselves that our shareholders had a nice go of it and we enjoyed a few rounds at the gas station to boot?