A team of scientists remains committed to preventing species from going extinct in Hawaii.

On July 30, 2020, Plant Extinction Prevention Program field botanist Hank Oppenheimer was conducting a routine plant survey in Pohakea Gulch in West Maui when he noticed a strange purple flower on a familiar shrub.

Although Oppenheimer has studied and surveyed Clermontia gaudich species throughout his career, this one was peculiar. The flower had white streaks, elongated lobes and convex petals.

Earlier this year, the plant was officially recognized as a new species, Clermontia hanaulaensis. It joins a few hundred other critically endangered plants only found in Hawaii.

Clermontia hanaulaensis is a critically endangered plant that botanist Hank Oppenheimer discovered in West Maui. (Courtesy: DLNR)
Clermontia hanaulaensis is a critically endangered plant that botanist Hank Oppenheimer discovered in West Maui. (Courtesy: DLNR)

On June 19, Oppenheimer, along with David Lorence of the National Tropical Botanical Garden and Warren Wagner of the Smithsonian Institution, published a paper announcing the new species.

Oppenheimer recalled the moment he discovered the plant as both surprising and serendipitous.  

“This is an area that has been reasonably well-botanized for over 150 years,” he said, adding that if he had not been fortunate enough to see the plant flowering, he wouldn’t have been able to distinguish Clermontia hanaulaensis from other nearby species of Clermontia.

Now that the species has been identified, it can be prioritized for conservation.

PEPP works to prevent plant extinction by creating a safety net: Oppenheimer and the PEPP team collect seeds and put them in long-term storage.

Hank Oppenheimer has been the Maui Nui PEPP coordinator since 2006. (Courtesy: PEPP)
Hank Oppenheimer has been the Maui Nui PEPP coordinator since 2006. (Courtesy: PEPP)

“Even species that are extinct in the wild, they are still in cultivation,” he said. “So they are not completely lost: they still exist.” 

To Oppenheimer, this is critical. Plants shouldn’t go extinct, he said.

“They have a right to exist,” Oppenheimer said, blaming their extermination on “negligence, lack of knowledge, and in some cases, apathy.”

Approximately 250 species of Hawaii’s endemic plants — plants that occur nowhere else on Earth — have less than 50 wild individuals. That’s about 20% of Hawaii’s vascular plant floor, which includes mosses, ferns and flowering plants like Clermontia. Scientists say 130 species have gone extinct. 

PEPP, established in 2003, is celebrating 20 years of conservation. It operates as a project of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the University of Hawaii Manoa, and receives state, federal and private funding.

The organization works with partners — ranging from large landowners to helicopter pilots to nonprofits to national parks — to manage threats to plants, to monitor plants, to enhance the population through nursery-grown stock, and to survey for plants.

Key threats include introduced plants, slugs, pigs and rats which eat seeds and fruit, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. On Maui in particular, the species is further threatened by invasive axis deer and the lack of native forest birds which pollinate the plants.

According to its website, the organization was named a 2013 Recovery Champion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and, since its inception, there has been no known Hawaiian plant extinction. 

Oppenheimer attributes the group’s success to collaboration and teamwork.

“It would be easy to be sucked into a negative thought process of gloom and doom,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s surprisingly emotional. To me, that underscores the kind of people that work in conservation.” 

The PEPP team remains determined to overcome challenges. That means working to convince reluctant landowners to participate in their programs, finding more trained field botanists and horticulturists that know how to work with such rare plants, and funding.

There are some plants, like the rarest Hawaiian orchid, that can’t survive without the interaction of a certain fungus, but scientists don’t know exactly what that fungus is. Bad weather prevents research helicopters from landing, which means that PEPP sometimes misses critical windows of time.

But, to Oppenheimer, there are no insurmountable barriers.

“All the issues can be addressed and the problems solved if we have enough resources,” he said.

Technological advancements are promising to alleviate some resource strain. Drones can fly to inaccessible areas and be used to identify, or even collect, plants. DNA analyses can help determine which plants have the most genetic diversity, or which plants are new species. 

As Oppenheimer looks towards the future, he hopes to work himself out of a job.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: it’s a long uphill climb. But I remain optimistic,” he said. “We have another generation that’s really capable and passionate and knowledgeable. It’s passing the baton to another generation, and they’re gonna take it and run with it.” 

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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