HAWAII - THE VANISHING SPECIES

           

 

Since the Polynesian voyagers set foot on Hawaii about 1500 years ago, at least one thousand creatures have become extinct. Having evolved in isolation, native species were not equipped to survive the onslaught of predators introduced with human arrival. Among the first species to be lost were the 20 species of flightless birds - easy prey for hunters - including the large tortoise-jawed moa nalo, known today only from skeletal remains.

 

The first Polynesian settlers who beached their canoes on the Big Island, explored the forest, hunting birds for food and for their colourful feathers, as well as gathering leaves for medicine. The original Hawaiians cleared lowland forests to cultivate the plants they brought with them such as breadfruit, bananas, sugar cane and taro. They also brought small pigs whose presence led to the extinction of at least 35 species of birds.

Flightless moa nalo, now extinct on the Hawaiian islands.

Captain James Cook, who arrived in 1778, took matters further. Word of his discovery spread throughout the west, and other ships soon followed. Over the next several decades, outsiders introduced cattle, goats, sheep, and large European pigs. Eventually, many of these animals escaped and flourished in a paradise without cold winters or natural predators. The Europeans and those who came after changed the islands more in 200 years than the Polynesians had in 1,400 years.

The Hawaiian islands, the earth's most remote archipelago,
harbours more than a third of the birds and plants on the endangered
and threatened species list. Most find refuge among hilly terrain too steep
 for development, such as the Koolau Range, which overlooks Honolulu.

As time went on, a vast agricultural empire arose. By 1900, the demand for wood and pasture land had denuded much of the forest areas. Government agencies reforested hillsides with alien trees like eucalyptus and pine in the early 1900s. In the following decades, developers poured concrete over beaches and drained the wet lands.

Rats came ashore in Polynesian canoes and European ships. The rats ate bird eggs and spread alien seeds carried in their furs and droppings. Avian diseases along with competitions from newcomers, predators, and habitat loss have contributed to the extinction of 27 species and subspecies of birds since the arrival of Captain Cook.

The 'i'iwi's bill.

Guarded by steady fencing, healthy forest inside
Hawaii Volcano National Park, abuts scrubby range land
 now roamed by cattle and feral goats and pigs.

Runoff from sugar cane fields and slopes prone to landslides stains
 Kauai's Anahola Bay after a downpour. Hawaii suffers extensive soil
 loss which produces fouled streams and coral reefs smothered by silt.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 8th October 2008)  

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