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Hawaii received grim news Sunday when the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared that 38 plant species found only on our islands had gone extinct and that hundreds more were on the brink.
The IUCN, which is holding its 10-day World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, blamed invasive species such as pigs, goats, rats, slugs and other plants for the decimation of Hawaii’s native flora.
A total of 415 plant species endemic to Hawaii were surveyed as part of the IUCN’s Red List assessment of threatened species and nearly 87 percent have been classified as being threatened with extinction.
The Red List is considered the most authoritative database of tracking the health of plant and animal species in the world — there are a nearly 83,000 species on the list today — and it is often cited by conservation groups and governments as they push for more protections for the planet’s flora and fauna.
Other species facing a perilous future, according to the IUCN’s latest Red List announcement, are four of the six great ape species, which are humans’ closest relatives and include gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. The IUCN found that two subspecies of gorilla and two subspecies of orangutan are “one step away from extinction.”
Kawika Winter, director of the Limahuli Garden and Preserve at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, took the news about Hawaii’s plant life in stride, saying that he hopes the IUCN’s announcement highlights the need to take action.
“Extinction has a broader effect on humanity than I think is recognizable to somebody just reading a headline.” — Kawika Winter, National Tropical Botanical Garden
“It’s absolutely great that we’re getting some attention to the peril that our native plants are in,” Winter said in an interview with Civil Beat. “The Red List is helping to highlight how fragile our forests are and how much they need to be helped.”
It’s doubtful the average person would recognize the names of the Hawaii plant species placed on the IUCN Red List, from the ohe kiko ola, a flowering tree only found on Kauai, to the haha, a species that hasn’t been seen in the wild since 2003.
But Winter said it’s still important to recognize that each species contributes to the sustainability of the overall forest, whether it’s through improved water retention, recycling carbon dioxide or erosion control. Just because the mountains are green doesn’t mean the forests are healthy.
Winter added the loss of a species is also a loss for Native Hawaiians who are clinging to their culture.
“Extinction has a broader effect on humanity than I think is recognizable to somebody just reading a headline,” Winter said. “If we have one of these super rare plants go extinct that’s not only a piece of biodiversity that the world loses, that’s a word in (the Hawaiian) language that goes extinct. That’s a story we can no longer tell our grandchildren.”
Sunday’s announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Hawaii’s ecological past. The state is often described as the endangered species capital of the world, in large part because most of our species are endemic.
The state has numerous biosecurity measures in place to prevent invasive species and diseases from taking hold on the islands, including through cargo inspections, animal quarantine and pest control.
But Matthew Keir of Laukahi: The Hawaii Plant Conservation Network said the state needs to do more if it wants to slow the loss of native species. He said the state should consider policies similar to those in New Zealand that tell visitors what they can bring into the state rather than what they should keep out.
Keir also said it’s important to ramp up cargo inspections at the harbors since most of the invasives that come to the islands are through the shipment of our everyday goods.
“It’s getting harder because we can prevent animals and maybe we can prevent plants from coming in, but things like forest disease can come in on live animals and maybe they can come in on people,” Keir told Civil Beat. “You’re seeing that with rapid ohia death on Hawaii island. We’re not even sure how that disease got here and how it moved to our trees. But now it has the potential to do vast landscape damage and degrade habitats all across the state.”
“Threatened Hawaiian plants are under-represented on the Red List and this recent effort has helped us to systematically identify their status and help to put them on our global map.” — Matthew Keir, Laukahi: The Hawaii Plant Conservation Network
Keir was a member of the group that performed the Red List assessment for IUCN. He said there was a concerted effort in advance of the World Conservation Congress to log as many species as possible on the Red List in an effort to highlight threats to plant life here.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to convince lawmakers and business leaders that funding conservation efforts is a worthy cause. Keir made a similar point during the IUCN press conference Sunday about the Red List.
“Threatened Hawaiian plants are under-represented on the Red List and this recent effort has helped us to systematically identify their status and help to put them on our global map,” Keir said. “This process has strengthened local partnerships around our local Hawaii strategy for plant conservation and will raise awareness here about how we can contribute to global biodiversity conservation.”
The IUCN Red List can often be an effective tool for influencing change and exerting political pressure, especially for the most charismatic species.
Sunday’s announcement might have been a dire assessment of the world’s struggling plant and animal species. But the IUCN still provided some positive news for some creatures on the planet, at least for the time-being.
According to the IUCN, giant panda populations in China have rebounded due to conservation and reforestation efforts that have restored critical habitat necessary for the bamboo-loving bear to thrive. While the panda used to be listed as “endangered” it is not considered “vulnerable,” which means it is not in imminent threat of extinction.
The Chinese government was credited for helping build an environment for panda populations to thrive. The IUCN warned, however, that the ongoing threats from climate change could eliminate more than 35 percent of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years, which could reverse recent gains.
IUCN Director General Inger Andersen said during the press conference that it’s important to pay attention to the Red List assessment because it can be used to spur conservation efforts, such as what happened with China’s pandas. If that doesn’t happen, she cautioned that it could result in the loss of more species.
“We already know what the drivers of species loss are, illegal hunting, habitat destruction and invasive species,” Andersen said. “But we also know — and this is the good news — that conservation works. We often can turn this around if you invest in conservation. And that’s a story we would like for you to hear.”