One of the most horrific recent wildlife crimes in Hawaii happened on the evening of Dec. 27 at Kaena Point on Oahu’s leeward coast, where one or more people went on a rampage, slaughtering up to 15 nesting Laysan albatrosses, smashing their eggs and destroying their nests.
Of the 15 nests, 11 attending adult birds are missing and now presumed dead. Body parts of four other birds were found near their nests. Some had their legs cut off.
More than three months later — and long after it was learned there were suspects tied to Punahou School — people are wondering what’s happened to the case. Some are concerned the suspects might never be brought to trial.
But Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katherine Kealoha said the case is very much in the forefront, with a team at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office pressing hard for the maximum punishment for the offenders.
“It is a sickening offense. It is completely appalling. The individuals have to face serious consequences for their actions,” she said.
She is coordinating efforts among the Prosecutor’s Office, the Honolulu Police Department, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We are looking at every possible avenue to hold the people accountable,” she said.
Kealoha said that in her tenure at the Prosecutor’s Office, there have never been as many calls and such concern as over this case.
“Animals are a beloved group that needs to be protected because they cannot protect themselves. People know that and they are outraged over what happened,” she said.
Kealoha said she knows it has been frustrating for the public because so little information has been revealed about the investigation.
“We are unable to communicate the details of what we are doing. If information gets out, the court could dismiss this case because of prejudice,” she said. “We cannot compromise this case. We don’t want anyone who has done this to be able to skirt responsibility.”
Some of the suspects are minors. So Kealoha said she is careful to keep confidential all details about the suspects, their ages or what happened that night.
In addition, the case is complicated because the alleged crime happened on property overseen by three jurisdictions: the city, the state and the federal government.
Considering the complexity of what happened and the number of agencies investigating, the case is actually moving quickly, she said.
The Laysan albatross is a federally protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and also protected under state wildlife rules.
Federal penalties for harming an albatross can be as high as $15,000 per incident and one year in prison, while the state penalties include fines of up to $10,000 per incident and up to $5,000 for each animal harmed.
Kealoha said officials are still working on possible charges. But one probable charge will be animal cruelty, a class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.
In all the calls I have made about the case, Hawaii law enforcement officials and other government investigators have given me zero information about the details of what happened or who was involved.
Instead, any details I have received came indirectly from the suspects who, at a party shortly after the Kaena incident, bragged to their peers about what they had done to the birds.
Some of those peers were stunned and told their parents. Slowly, the word got out to others.
I wondered if any Punahou students had been suspended or expelled following the albatross incident. Laurel Hussain, communications director of the school, says Punahou “cannot comment about “the individual circumstances of current or former students.”
She emailed me the following statement:
“At Punahou, we have strongly condemned the senseless destruction of the albatross nesting area in the Ka‘ena Point Natural Reserve last December, and acknowledged how disturbing it was to hear that teenagers with ties to Punahou may have been involved in the incident. This deplorable act completely contradicts the values of the School that we promote with our students, among them respect for our community and the environment. The School has taken this issue seriously and cooperated with the various agencies conducting investigations.”
A reward of $10,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
Marjorie Ziegler, president of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, collected pledges for the reward. She said that if conservationists and animal rights groups had continued to ask for reward money they easily could have raised more than $20,000 because people are so outraged.
Part of the fury is because Laysan albatrosses are harmless, trusting creatures, who are unafraid of people.
You can walk right up to a nesting albatross and all it is likely to do is to click its bill, as if to say, “Please be careful of my nest.” That’s why killing them seems so cruel.
Ziegler said, “People are still very sad and concerned and hoping that the suspects will take responsibility for what they did.”
Lindsay Young, executive director of Pacific Rim Conservation, is in charge of studying and monitoring the albatross colony at Kaena.
Young has studied the colony for 13 years and wrote her Ph.D. thesis on it. She said she knows each of the 200 albatrosses at the colony as individuals.
She said that since the incident, albatross studies have continued, but the colony have been hampered by the loss of 5 percent of the adult birds and the destruction of about 20 percent of the 79 nests in the refuge.
“The adult birds that were killed were extremely valuable because they would have contributed to the efforts to increase the size of the albatross colony at Kaena. Adults are 97 percent likely to return to Kaena to nest from year to year, which helps build up numbers of birds in the colony,” she said.
On the night of the incident, the suspects allegedly stole $3,100 worth of equipment belonging to Young’s organization, including bird monitoring cameras, solar panels and a sound system used to emit bird calls to attract other bird species to Kaena.
She said the group had to purchase new equipment.
Young says she knows the Prosecutor’s Office is working hard on the case, but she hopes that after the perpetrators are convicted that more is done to protect the bird refuge in the future.
“I am hoping something good comes out of this by drawing attention to the need to keep a full-time enforcement official at Kaena. The Legislature should provide money for an enforcement officer in a separate fund so DLNR doesn’t have to stretch its already thin budget,” Young said.
There is no regular security in the Kaena reserve area now.
As an alumna of Punahou and the parent of a Punahou graduate, I wish the parents of the suspects would urge their children to turn themselves in to face responsibility for what they did by pleading guilty.
They need to step up now to say they are sorry and seek atonement for the shame they have brought to themselves, their families, the school and to all of us.