Hawaii has been referred to, not necessarily flatteringly, as the “endangered species capital of the world.” The islands’ physical isolation means plants and animals carried here by wind, water and wings have had millenia to evolve into their own unique species found nowhere else on earth. Human encroachment into previously undisturbed habitats has threatened the survival of many of these rare, native species. The U.S. government says 377 species native to Hawaii are endangered.
The U.S. Army’s efforts to reduce impacts on endangered and native species of plants and animals on its many land holdings includes a rat eradication program. A campaign that would use a bucket hung from a helicopter to disperse rat poison across large swaths of inaccessible forest for the first time on the main Hawaiian Islands is being discussed.
Many plants and animals have become endangered and eventually extinct throughout the course of the earth’s history. Recently, the rate of extinctions has increased as plants and animals lost their native habitats and were forced to adapt to new surroundings and circumstances.
Of concern to researchers are the coastal reefs of coral that affect the supply for Hawaii’s commercial fishermen. Warmer oceans, as much as one degree over the last 58 years, have caused coral animals on the reefs to bleach out a process which can kill them. Smaller fish that feed on the corals are the start of the food chain for larger fish that lead upward to commercial fish such as Ahi and Mahi-mahi, a staple at Hawaii tourist restaurants. There is also a concern about ocean bathers who use sunscreen containing the chemical oxybenzone that is destructive to coral. Loss of the coral reefs would impact about 80 percent of tourists who like to snorkel among them.
In Hawaii in particular, the expansion of human society into undeveloped areas has put pressure on the ecosystem. The introduction — both deliberately and accidentally — of alien plants and animals has decimated Hawaii’s native plants and creatures.
Whalers were said to have introduced mosquitoes to Lahaina on Maui in the 1820s, causing long-term trouble for Hawaii’s birds. The sandalwood trade, which decimated the population of one of the islands’ native trees, is another example of how early Western contact foreshadowed the future impact to the ecosystem.
Lists of Endangered and Threatened Species
In addition to the dozens of species that have become extinct, the official list of endangered species in the United States is created under the Federal Endangered Species Act and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a bureau in the Department of Interior, under its Endangered Species Program. The Fish and Wildlife Service lists 377 different Hawaii species that are endangered and also has a lengthy list of threatened and endangered species in the Pacific Islands that includes mammals, reptiles, birds and many plants.
Of those 377 Hawaii species, 58 are animals and 319 are plants. Among the most recognizable is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a marine mammal that can become entangled in fishing gear and is threatened by exposure to disease, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mother seals with their pups also suffer harassment. Seals who use coastlines for breeding and basking in the sun after eating fish have not developed evasive skills on land. In the 19th Century, seals were killed for their oil and pelts while fisherman have at times killed seals for taking their catch. In 2010, Hawaii passed a state law to supplement the Endangered Species Act, making it a felony to deliberately harm a monk seal.
Green Sea Turtles, called “honu” in Hawaiian, are another prominent threatened species. Some of the other commonly known endangered species are the albatross, the humpback whale and the Hawaiian goose known locally as nene.
Internationally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature publishes a “red list” of species, arranged from “extinct” in the extreme to “extinct in the wild,” “critically endangered,” “endangered,” “vulnerable,” “near threatened,” and “least concern.” A search of the IUCN red list reveals that 539 different species native to Hawaii are endangered today.