In the shadow of Diamond Head, a young uau kani — wedge-tailed shearwater — squirms in the tender grip of two latex-gloved hands. Discomfort is a good thing: If this animal is to survive in the wild, it shouldn’t be used to being handled.

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After weeks of rehabilitation, the moment of truth had arrived. The rehabilitator shifts her grip, freeing the football-sized fledgling’s wings. For a moment, uau kani simply sits, confused. The rehabber begins to gently bounce the seabird in her arms, the way a parent would bounce their child. The falling sensation causes the shearwater to begin flapping.

Soon, the bird is moving up and down on its own. One more toss, and it’s airborne!

With satisfied smiles, the uau kani’s caretakers watch it glide over the crashing waves and into the sunset. Tucked inside transport boxes, several more shearwaters await their turn.

Native Hawaiian species often grace the Honolulu Zoo as temporary guests, rescued and recovering until the day when they are strong enough to leave. Some, such as Makamai the pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl), or Xena the io (Hawaiian hawk), can’t be fully healed and instead become permanent residents.

For many others, such as the disoriented shearwaters and fledgling manu o ku (white tern), nurtured by the Hawaii Wildlife Center, it is only a matter of time before they are released back in the wild.

Nesting White Fairy Tern sits on a little tern chick on the Kapiolani Community College campus. Official bird of the Honolulu City and County in 2007.
A manu o ku chick nesting at the Kapiolani Community College campus. The Honolulu Zoo helps rescue animals and help them return to the wild. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Honolulu Zoo has worked with multiple organizations to restore Hawaii’s native species for decades. When the nene was down to 43 animals worldwide, it was Zoo Director Paul Breese who chaired the Nene Restoration Project in 1949. Under his leadership, the nene gained protections as Hawaii’s state bird in 1959. The program has increased the wild population to some 2,800 today.

Currently, the zoo has expanded its efforts to some of Hawaii’s smaller and more fragile species. Kamehameha butterflies are found nowhere else on the planet. Since the zoo’s breeding efforts with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources began two years ago, these captive-born insects have been reintroduced back in their original range on the Manoa Cliffs trail.

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In 2015, only a single Amastra cylindrica snail was found in the wild. In cooperation with DLNR, the Honolulu Zoo has helped to increase their numbers by several dozen, with over 140 reintroduced to their native habitat. As major nutrient recyclers in Hawaii’s forest leaf-litter, they are no less worthy of protection than any of the elephants or rhinos that they share the zoo with.

The dedicated staff of the Honolulu Zoo has also enjoyed success at breeding species found across the globe, such as African wild dogs, birds of paradise, and two-toed sloths. The five crocodile monitor lizards in the Keiki Zoo nursery have already doubled in size, with eight more eggs already incubating. The zoo has hatched and raised over two dozen of these rare lizards since 1990 — a feat that no other facility has been able to match.

Breeding is only a small part of conservation; there must be wilderness left to return to. The Honolulu Zoo also partners with organizations around the globe, courtesy of the Aloha Aina Conservation Fund. Whether it is money to fight poachers via the Tiger Conservation Campaign, or translocating birds with Pacific Bird Conservation, the zoo’s staff builds bridges worldwide, for the sake of protecting wildlife. At home, the zoo also connects animals with the most important group of all: our community.

“People protect what they love.” — Jacques Cousteau

The Honolulu Zoo offers kamaaina chances to see animals (and plants) they may not have even heard of.

Whether it is Eleele the Siamang brachiating through the air, or Vaigai the elephant showering herself with dust, learning an animal’s personal history generates an emotional connection that few wildlife documentaries can replicate. The animal becomes an individual and an ambassador for environmental responsibility.

These messages, and memories of the animals themselves, can last a lifetime. Many adults bringing their families are often thrilled to learn that they are meeting the same animal that they grew up with. The longevity of the zoo’s animals is possible in part because of the love and care from their keepers as well as our island’s beautiful climate; but for that same reason, the lessons in conservation are crucial during this time of warming global temperatures.

The animals of the Honolulu Zoo give our keiki another reason to help reverse the destruction of our islands and our planet as a whole. In saving our magnificent wildlife, we are also able to save ourselves from mistakes our own species have made in the past.

Conservation can only be successful if it is a community effort. For these reasons, the zoo’s mission statement includes the words malama (to care for) and hookipa (to host with compassion), not only for the visitors that pass through the gates, but for the animals that share our planet.

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