The Alakai Swamp: An Ecosystem Besieged

The Challenge: To protect, preserve and restore the Alakai Swamp.

"Nobody protected us." With the exception of the Puaiohi, all have gone extinct since 1970. Between 200 and 300 Puaiohi yet exist in unfenced, unprotected hunting areas of the Alakai swamp. Although a belated effort to captive breed and release has begun, only six to eight of eighteen birds released in 2004 remained alive six weeks after release

Flash! Jan 15 2006 Hog Fences Cut near Waialeale Rain gage.

In August 2005, we observed that the hog exclusion fence at the summit was totally infective, with extensive hog rooting on both sides of the fence and up to the shore of Waialeale Lake. In Jan 2006, we observed that the fence had been cut in three places.

As you read this, a state protected population of introduced feral wild boar is rooting up acres of the Alakai Plateau on Kauai, creating mud holes ideal for breeding mosquitos and avian malaria and spreading the seeds of noxious invasive plants. The population of some endemic birds is in free fall. The New York Times notes.

The people who try to save endangered species in Hawaii are immune to despair. They have to be, to keep doing what they do. They dangle on ropes from 3,000-foot sea cliffs on Molokai to brush pollen on a flower whose only natural pollinator - some unknown bird or insect - has died out. They trudge into remote forests to play taped bird calls, hoping that a survivor of a vanished species will reply…They capture and tend one small bird, old for its kind and missing an eye, then spend fruitless months searching for another to be its mate…That bird, a po'ouli, the last known member of its genus and species, died in its cage on Maui on Nov. 26. The news, briefly noted in the papers, was another milestone in a long-running environmental catastrophe that is engulfing the islands…

In a 50-hectare study area(scroll down to fig 26) on Maui, between 1975 and 1985, feral boar activity increased almost 500% while the Poo-uli population crashed 90%. The last known Poo-uli died on Nov 28, 2004.
Why is the Alakai Swamp dying?

Today Hawaii has the dubious reputation of being "the extinction capital of the world." Others have labeled it the "introduced species capital of the world."

"Though many introduced species are implicated in the conversion of native systems to alien ones, there is a strong consensus among scientists and land managers that feral pigs, more than any other invader, are now responsible for initiating and driving this process further into the state's remaining intact native forest."
from "Nature out of Place" available from Island Press

Invasive (introduced) species - feral wild boar, mosquitoes, plants are spreading, destroying what little remains of the delicate, pristine rainforest of Hawaii. Boars have been called the "most destructive force in native forest besides land development."(Development has largely ceased in the higher elevation rainforest). Boars are the primary source of breeding holes for mosquitoes which spread avian malaria which have exterminated endemic birds. The boars running amuck are descendants of the introduced wild boars, not hybrids.( more hog links)

According to the USGS's Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center (PIERC)

"the small (20 kilos) Polynesian pig has been completely replaced by larger (200 kilo) domesticated European breeds (shown here) introduced to the archipelago about 200 years ago."

Wild boars didn't start destroying the high elevation forest until fairly recently. In the early 1900's (scroll down to Feral Pigs), the Hawaii Territorial Board of Agriculture and Forestry recognized that feral wild boar were beginning to devastate the rainforest and began a boar eradication program that killed 170,000 wild boars. Since 1959 when the new state government reversed policy and started sustaining the hog population for hunters and, demonstrating unfathomable logic, actually introduced even more species of game animal, the destruction of the rainforest has accelerated.

The rate of bird extinction has accelerated with thirteen species lost since 1959. Endemic bird population have plummeted. Between 1989 and 2000, the population density of Kauai's endangered Akikiki dropped almost 90 percent. If the state maintains it current rate of extinction, by 2075, we will have lost every endemic Hawaiian bird while the wild boars prosper and inhabit the most remote wildness of Hawaii.

Fencing and eradication have been proven to be the only effective method of protecting pristine forest. The rainforest is stable or recovering only where it has been fenced. Fencing off pristine forest may actually enhance hunting by forcing the wild boars to stay in lower areas. There is no evidence or study to support the claim that fencing would reduce the numbers of wild boars harvested. Although some of the bogs have been fenced, this only protects a limited number of plant species, a miniscule part of the Alakai and has no effect on the threat to the bird population.

With the exception of the extreme eastern edge (open map and layers for threatened and endangered birds) of the Alakai Plateau, the critical bird habitat lies within a hunting area.

There is no evidence to support the claim that hunting has slowed the rapid spread of introduced species into the rainforest of Hawaii. To the contrary, hunting may have forced the wild boars into less accessible areas of Hawaii. Feral wild boar also require an excellent protein source for reproduction. Before the introduction of the earthworm by Europeans, the Polynesian pig, similar to the pot bellied pig, those that weren't raised in enclosures, stayed near to human habitation, rooting through garbage, etc., to obtain protein. As the earthworms spread, the aggressive European wild boar could spread throughout the rainforest.

The Polynesian pig was domesticated and weighed 40 to 50 pounds, a fraction of the 200 plus of the introduced wild boar. There is little or no evidence that the Polynesian pig spread far from the Hawaiian settlements. (Dr Loope is the Station Leader of the Haleakala Field Station[HFS])

We've found no evidence that pig hunting existed before the arrival of the introduced wild boar. According to the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife

"The pig is not a native animal… Pigs were of importance to the ancient Hawaiian people because they were a prized source of food. Because they were so valuable, the pigs were not allowed to roam free in the forest, but rather were carefully tended to by the owners."

Wild boar hunting is not a tradition of Hawaii Culture. The wild boars were introduced as are all game animals in Hawaii. If the hunters truly supported "tradition" they'd be urging the irradication of the wild boar and the reintroduction of the Polynesian pig (we might still find some in Tahiti or Samoa).

Although only about one percent of the population hunt boars, we do not advocate reducing hunting, but protecting the endangered rainforest from further devastation. In fact, we advocate increased hunting.

As of yet, in the pristine forest, the feral boar population is low. But as they spread more guava seeds, earthworm eggs in their droppings, hollow out more uluhe ferns, modifying the environment from one that is ideal for endemic birds and plants to one ideal only for boars and mosquitoes, the feral boar population in the as of yet relatively undamaged forest will grow. Stopped the spread of the boars would have little or no impact on hunters.

"Some people rely on having the (boar)meat for food," is a common lament heard from the bureaucrats tasked with protecting the boars at the risk of the rainforest. But what they're saying? Throughout the world, desperate native populations are destroying their rainforest for firewood and cropspace, in Africa endangered species are appearing in markets as "bush meat." How can we convince them to do otherwise if we, as the richest, most prosperous nation on earth, are willing to sacrifice our rainforest because our people "rely" on the boars running free.

We suspect that most of the wild boar in Hawaii, after you factor in the cost of feeding the hounds, putting gas in the pickup, buying guns, permits and ammo, is probably pricier than filet mignon. Does anybody actually believe that people will go hungry if the pristine forest is fenced.

If people are actually going to go hungry, we should reintroduce range cattle (judging from historical accounts, before they were exterminated, hunting range cattle was more popular than hunting hogs -- but nobody starved when they were irradicated) into the forest reserves already devasted (and that's lots) or, by planting guava and maintaining the irrigation system, we could introduce pigs or range cattle into the thousands of acres of sugarcane that's been abandoned in recent years. Acreage that now is being thickly overgrown with "garbage" vegetation.

Fences? We don't need no stinkin' fences.

Native forest transformed into typical rangeland on the Big Island.
"You talking to me? I'm protected!"
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