One Seed Every 30,000 Years

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times last Sunday:

Each year, I await with dread the federal governmentʻs catalog of the endangered species under imminent threat in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was raised and where I live.

The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in only two places on the island of Kauaʻi
The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in two places on the island of Kauaʻi

On its 2015 list, the Fish and Wildlife Office included the ‘ea, or hawksbill turtle, as well as the green turtle, Ridley sea turtle, and leatherback turtle. Four mammals are considered endangered — the Hawaiian hoary bat; the kohola, or humpback whale; the sperm whale; and the endemic Hawaiian monk seal. Among the thirty-four endangered birds are the Hawaiian goose, or nēnē; the Maui parrotbill; the Nihoa millerbird; the red- legged stilt; and the iʻo, or Hawaiian hawk. There were once 99 species of land snails in the Islands; of the 25 that have survived, 9 are under threat of extinction. Fifteen arthropods, including the sphinx moth and the oceanic damselfly, are listed. Among the endangered plants are a white hibiscus found only in Wailau Valley on Molokaʻi; the lovely Hawaiian gardenia or naʻu (although now widely cultivated in an effort to save it, there are only two or three plants remaining in the wild), the mountain silversword of Mauna Loa; the loʻulu, or Pritchardia palm; and one small yellow campanula (Brighamia insignis) last seen on a cliff on the Na Pali coast of Kauaʻi.

Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), last seen in 1884.
The Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), was last seen in 1884.

There is a certain irony that such adaptive and resilient species as those indigenous (native, but occurring elsewhere) and endemic (occurring nowhere else in the world) to the Hawaiian Islands should be allowed to disappear from the planet. The chance of any species reaching and then surviving on an island as distant as one of the Hawaiian chain is infinitesimal, but despite the extraordinary odds, species found their way ashore, carried by the tide or blown by trade winds; inside birds or in their feathers; in the branches of trees; and in the jetsam of sunken ships. It is thought that such an event occurred only three hundred times in the history of the archipelago, meaning that on average, if one takes 70 million years as the life of the Islands, one seed or sapling was successfully introduced every 20,000 to 30,000 years. Many of those original species have now disappeared. According to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 271 species of all indigenous and endemic flora and fauna (introduced by various means) have become extinct in the last two hundred years.

Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 18, private collection
Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 1783, private collection

Although the decimation of species is due to commercialization, the loss of forests, hunting, the growth of population, pervasive invasive fauna, and now global warming, it began with the first voyagers from Polynesia in the seventh century A.D., who brought to the Islands their own plants and animals, including pigs, chickens, and dogs, which ensured the survival of the settlers, but threatened those native species which were innocent of predators. In the early nineteenth-century, rapacious Hawaiian chiefs were responsible for the disappearance of vast sandalwood forests, the fragrant wood sought by the Chinese for incense, and for the loss of thousands of native birds killed to make the yellow, red, and green feather capes, lei, and helmets of the nobility. Hawaiʻiʻs first king, Kamehameha I, must be held accountable for some of the early loss of plants, thanks to the kapu he placed on the cattle given him in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. The cattle, and later goats, were allowed to roam wild in the uplands, where they destroyed the delicate ferns, vines, trees, and grasses that had provided generations of Hawaiians with food, fishing lines, nets, vegetable dyes, timber, medicine, barkcloth, and thatch for their houses. European contact, which began in 1778 with the discovery of the Islands by Captain James Cook, brought disease and the further destruction of ecosystems.

IMG_460078027Feather capes, watercolors by Sarah Stone, 1783

Later in the nineteenth century, the spread of sugar plantations ensured that additional acres of native grasslands and forests, and the creatures who lived in them, many of them natural pollinators, were heedlessly destroyed. Large cattle ranches, particularly on the Big Island, meant that the forests and valleys that were once home to numerous species were turned into grazing land.

The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2014
The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2015

Despite its rank as the state with the highest number of endangered or threatened species, Hawaiʻi receives less than 5% of the funding allotted by the federal government’s endangered species program — $1.5 million in 2013, out of $32 million given to twenty states, a third of which went to buy 635 acres of forested land on Oʻahu, while the rest was given to Kauaʻi to plan habitats for birds. Private landowners, community watch groups, conservation groups, local government agencies, and even schoolchildren are increasingly aware of the great loss that is underway, but for many species, it will be too late. Many people despair that there is not enough compassion, not enough will, not enough time or money to go around. Is the disappearance of the Hawaiian cave wolf spider, they ask, or the Hibiscadelphus distans, one of the worldʻs rarest trees, that important to most people? Especially in comparison to human lives? History, it appears, indicates that the human ones will be able to survive without honeycreepers and monk seals, but that is a solipsistic view. If the wolf spider is in trouble, we are in trouble, too.