More than a year after several native and endangered plants were meticulously stolen from his Kaneohe greenhouse, Rick Barboza remains hopeful that he’ll recover the agricultural treasures he nursed for 15 years.

He received lots of help and sympathy from the community, including amateur sleuths who went as far as checking different island nurseries, scanning through online markets and even a woman who spread the word on TikTok in a video that got over 1,000 shares. So far no luck, but Barboza hasn’t given up.

“I have a feeling they’re going to turn up one day, I really do,” said Barboza, who co-founded Hui Ku Maoli Ola, Oahu’s second commercial nursery devoted entirely to Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced plants. “I don’t know how I’m going to react when that happens, but I can’t wait.”

Rick Barboza owner of Hui Ku Maoli Ola walks thru his greenhouse. Thieves stole some of his native plants.
Rick Barboza owner of Hui Ku Maoli Ola walks through his greenhouse nursery pointing out which of the dozen native and endangered plants were stolen last year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

More than a dozen plants, worth more than $5,000, were taken, including numerous species of Ohia Lehua, some native ferns and Olulu, which are extinct in the wild. Also stolen were hundreds of seeds from Loulu trees — native palms that were once considered dominant on Oahu but are now exceedingly rare. They take over seven years to flower and collect fruit.

While no motive has been confirmed, the August 2020 theft underscored concerns about the poaching of rare native plants and endangered species in Hawaii, especially since plant collecting became a popular hobby as the Covid-19 pandemic kept people closer to home.

Buyers will pay big bucks for exotic plants from another state, and sellers will hunt for the rarest plant species in the forests. While the demand for house plants have been succulents, cactuses and Hoya, in fact, some of the plants sold online are endangered, according to Patrick Shirey, assistant professor from the University of Pittsburgh.

A 2013 study found that most of the federally threatened or endangered plants illegally sold online were from Hawaii, including several species of Loulu palms that sold for upwards of $600 on e-commerce websites.

Shirey, who authored the study, said he has observed that the practice continues, with recent sightings of seedlings for the endangered Pritchardia Hardyi and the yellow hibiscus, which is the Hawaii state flower.

Skye Razon-Olds, executive director of Kanaka Climbers, a Native Hawaiian-led nonprofit hiking and rock climbing group, said she has seen people glorifying the plants they received from Hawaii on TikTok.

“Our endangered species here have been at risk of being poached since they were put on that (endangered species) list,” she said. “It’s been happening since plants have been an exciting thing, especially with Covid. Everybody is at home and everybody is happy to have something to take care of.”

Rainbow forms along the Koolau mountains while standing at Hui Ku Maoli Ola.
Hui Ku Maoli Ola nurses more than a 100 species of native and endangered plants. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii is often called the “endangered species capital of the world” because it contains 44% of endangered or threatened plant species in the United States, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. There are officially 366 Hawaiian plant species listed as endangered or threatened by the federal and state governments, and an additional 48 species are proposed as endangered.

Under state law, it’s illegal to cut, collect, uproot, destroy, injure or possess any threatened or endangered plants.

Depending on state and federal laws, certain plants may be legally taken from the forests and sold with a permit. The 2013 study also said poachers may exploit loopholes in the Endangered Species Act, which does not prohibit commercial sales within states.

“Furthermore, the ESA does not prohibit an individual from giving listed plants as a gift to someone in another state so long as a change in plant ownership is not in the pursuit of gain or profit,” the study said.

Ohia Lehua blossom flower at Punchbowl Cemetery.
Ohia Lehua blooming in Hawaii. There are only five recognized species of Ohia. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Shirey said commercial trade could help efforts to protect the plants by encouraging conservation efforts. On the other hand, there are issues with possibly introducing pathogens and bacteria to another environment.

Between October 2020 and this year, DLNR issued 153 permits to harvest native and non-native species, with 88% for personal use, but the statistics don’t include threatened or endangered species. The most harvested plant was bamboo, according to the Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said that while “there is no direct evidence of rare plant poaching,” the agency is aware of people posting on social media about taking plants or seeds in Hawaii without a permit. It’s prohibited for threatened and endangered plants to be collected and advertised for sale on social media.

The Plant Extinction Prevention Program tries “to respond to posts to tell people that not only may their activities be illegal, but in some cases they could be responsible for hastening extinctions, when they collect from plants that have very limited numbers of individuals in the wild,” Dennison said.

Silverswords near the Mauna Kea visitors center. 10 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Silverswords near the Mauna Kea Visitors Center are considered endangered. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DLNR doesn’t maintain a database of plant poaching but said there has been a recent report of attempted poaching of the endangered Pritchardia bakeri, which is endemic to the Koolau Mountains.

“A metal cage was found attached to a bunch of immature fruits to protect them from rats. We assume the person who installed the cage intended to return to collect the fruit and it was removed,” Dennison quoted Matt Keir, a botanist with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, as saying.

Kier also cited past reports of illegal harvesting of wood on private land on Maui, the poaching of Koa trees on Kauai and stolen bark from acacia trees in the Manoa Valley District Park.

In 2018, two visitors were accused of poaching a rare silversword plant on the slopes Haleakala National Park on Maui.

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