By Mele Khalsa

The ‘i‘iwi, threatened by avian malaria, is protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since Sept. 20. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Hawaiian Islands are the home to a wide diversity of unique species. Unfortunately, many of them are dying out before our very eyes. The native forest birds are succumbing to avian malaria, native trees are being killed by fungus, reefs are impacted by chemicals in sunscreen and human-produced run-off, and seabird populations are crashing due to predation by damaging invasive feral cats and rats.

According to American Bird Conservancy, “Since humans arrived in Hawai‘i, 95 of 142 bird species found nowhere else have become extinct … 33 of Hawai‘i’s remaining 44 endemic birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act; 10 of those have not been seen for decades and are likely extinct.”

But there is hope. Those of us passionate about reversing these downward trends and saving unique island species are turning to conservation interventions.

A conservation intervention is anything you might do to manage, protect, enhance or restore a region’s biodiversity and ecosystem integrity in such a way that resolves the problem so completely that the need for ongoing attention is eliminated. In most cases, resources are managed and monitored over the long term — slowly and incrementally over time. But these types of programs require a lot of sustained manpower and money. If there is any lapse in funding or momentum, much of the progress is quickly lost.

After doing this type of work for many years, it is easy to get jaded and ask yourself, “If I stop for a month and the invasive weeds, rats or diseases all just come flooding back, is this sustainable?” You watch the things you study, love, and care so deeply about, slowly fade away, one fragmented population at a time. You start to think, “Isn’t there something more we can do?”

The ‘i‘iwi, threatened by avian malaria, is protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since Sept. 20. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The status quo isn’t working anymore. We have monitored these things for years and we are still watching them steadily decline That is when people turn to conservation interventions.

Can we eradicate the mosquitoes that carry avian malaria, which kills our forest birds? Could we create protected fenced areas and remove the invasive predators? Or eradicate non-native predators from entire offshore islands to preserve the nesting habitat for native bird species? Can we ban harmful sunscreens, control run-off and grow new corals in fish tanks to repopulate decimated areas? The answer is yes!

Many people are working hard to make these ideas into realities. These interventions are realistic, and create the kind of transformation that ongoing management projects simply cannot. Conservation intervention means digging to the root of the problem instead of working on the surface. Conservation intervention means reaching a breakthrough. It is the difference between a lasting change and continuous effort fighting uphill battles. Conservation interventions set the system free to heal itself.

But the more drastic the intervention, the more difficult it is to get people behind it. The Lehua Restoration Project is the perfect example. The biological costs of applying rodenticide to an island must be accepted for the successful restoration of the entire island ecosystem.

The same goes for proposed laws banning the use of oxybenzone-based sunscreens, which have been shown to be highly toxic to reefs in miniscule doses. We must accept the inconvenience from using alternate types of sunscreen to protect the reefs that are the very foundation of beautiful marine ecosystems that draw visitors and locals alike into the water. When people see a dramatic response to a dire situation, some cheer, while others panic, assume ill intent, and even try to stop the work without taking the time to learn the facts and reasoning behind the intervention.

In some areas of conservation, we are simply too far past the point at which minor adjustments can make the necessary change for the survival of a species or the health of an ecosystem. We have tried making incremental changes but the status quo is not adequate; we need conservation interventions to save the species we care about and want to flourish, such that our children can enjoy them too.

If my kids never get to see the bright scarlet of an ‘I‘iwi flitting through the Koke‘e trees, then we have failed. If my kids cannot visit the forest and hear the legends of the ‘Ōhi‘a tree while gazing at its beautiful flowers, we have failed. If they cannot hear the haunting calls of seabirds as they sweep across the moon and stars, we have failed. I remain hopeful, and ask my community to have the courage to do the same — to not dismiss radical interventions out-of-hand, out of fear. Thanks to conservation intervention, there is hope.

Mele Khalsa

We must succeed in our duties to the ‘aina to protect and serve her unique native inhabitants that make this place so special. I am encouraged by the promising conservation interventions that are already available to us and that are in the making. I have hope that we can support the flourishing of unique island species that make Kaua‘i so special.

I have hope that my keiki and their keiki can enjoy the islands the way I have: with awe, respect, and love for the diverse lifeforms and endemic species that call it home alongside me.

  • Mele Khalsa grew up on Kaua‘i and has a degree in Environmental Biology. Mele serves as an island restoration specialist with Island Conservation, the world’s only global, nonprofit, nongovernment conservation organization whose sole mission is to prevent extinctions by removing species from islands. Learn more at islandconservation.org or www.lehua-island.com.