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Native Hawaiians have a deep kinship with Hawaiian forest birds and revere, honor, and deify them as family, ancestors, guardians, spirits, and gods. The connections among Hawaiians, their forests, and birds span centuries and continue today.

Image: An Endangered Honeycreeper, the  ‘Akeke‘e (Kaua‘i Akepa), in Hawai‘i
An Endangered Honeycreeper, the `Akeke`e (Kauai Akepa), in Hawai‘i.

Through ‘ike ku‘una (traditional or inherited knowledge), the Kumulipo (cosmological and genealogical chants), hula (the indigenous dance of Hawai‘i), and Ka‘ao (traditional stories) Native Hawaiians are intimately tied to forest birds, their immediate habitat, and their broader island and archipelagic environment.  

This kinship increases the urgency to save four endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreepers from imminent extinction caused by climate change and other human caused factors. Once, there were more than 50 species of honeycreepers spread across Hawai‘i – today, only 17 species remain, with a few species having less than 200 individuals remaining. Rapid population declines have now pushed the ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu and ‘ākohekohe to the brink of extinction. 

Across Hawai‘i, native forest birds have been experiencing population declines that have accelerated in the last one to two decades. Habitat loss, invasive species, and non-native predators have negatively affected forest bird species for hundreds of years, but introduced diseases, particularly avian malaria, are the greatest threat to forest birds today. U.S. Geological Survey scientists and partners have been working to identify bird populations experiencing rapid declines, the distribution of mosquitoes and avian malaria in critical bird habitat, and how changes in climate could alter distributions and disease prevalence. 

Climate Change Impact 

Photograph of the Kawaikoi Stream
Kawaikoi Stream, Kaua‘i.

Climate change has increased temperatures in high-elevation forests, allowing mosquitoes to reach areas that were once malaria-free. A single bite from an infected mosquito can kill and the death rate may exceed 90 percent for some bird species. As a result, many threatened or endangered native birds now only survive in high-elevation forests where mosquito populations and malaria development are limited by colder temperatures. Unlike continental bird species, Hawaiian forest birds cannot move northward in response to climate change or increased disease stressors, but instead must adapt or move to less hospitable habitats to survive. 

As climate warms and more mosquitoes move up the mountainside, disease-free refuges no longer provide a haven for the most vulnerable species. The rate of disease infection is likely to speed up as the numbers of mosquitoes increase and more diseased birds become hosts to the parasites, continuing the cycle of infection to healthy birds. 

Biologists studying these birds strongly agree that without a rapid conservation response there is a high probability that four endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreepers - the ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu, and ‘ākohekohe - will go extinct in the coming decade. With already small population sizes, restricted ranges, and increasing prevalence of disease in their habitat, the status quo is not sustainable. Additionally, disease dynamics are influenced by climate, and a year or even a season with favorable weather conditions for mosquitoes could lead to a large disease outbreak that could hasten extinction. 

Alternative Management Actions 

Image: An Endangered Honeycreeper, the `Akikiki (Kaua`i Creeper), in Hawaii
An Endangered Honeycreeper, the `Akikiki (Kaua`i Creeper), in Hawai‘i.

There is hope for the birds, but natural resource managers are fighting the clock to implement conservation strategies to protect these unique species from further decimation. A recent report authored by the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Office of Native Hawaiian Relations and published by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Hawai‘i Cooperative Studies Unit used input from a wide range of biologists and biocultural experts to develop scientifically sound, community-supported strategies to prevent the extinction of Hawaiian forest birds. In the report, the ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu, and ‘ākohekohe were identified as being at risk of extinction in the next 1-10 years. In cooperation with scientists from organizations across Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiian biocultural experts evaluated the status of the birds and providing perspectives on potential conservation actions that could be taken to prevent the birds’ extinction. Broadly, the three alternative management actions being considered to prevent the extinction of forest birds from disease are: 

  1. Landscape-level mosquito control through the Wolbachia incompatible insect technique, which is a form of mosquito birth control that suppresses mosquito populations at a landscape level and that, if successful, would effectively break the avian malaria disease cycle. However, it would need to be implemented continuously to maintain its effect on mosquito populations. 
  2. Captive care involves removing forest birds from the wild and placing them in a controlled facility under human care. Long-term conservation rearing can facilitate a breeding program to prevent extinction and supplement wild populations. An alternative approach to long-term captive care is short-term holding of birds until they can be translocated to safer forests (conservation translocation) or released back into the wild once their habitat is disease free following the application of Wolbachia IIT mosquito suppression. 
  3. Conservation translocation is the deliberate movement of organisms from one location for release in another for the purpose of their conservation or recovery. For forest birds, conservation translocation could occur via the movement of individuals from their current range to a suitable, disease-free site on Hawai‘i Island; or removing individuals from their current range and maintaining them in a controlled facility under human care for a short period while waiting for translocation planning to be completed. Conservation translocation may have multiple goals, including the establishment of a second population in a new location, or to act as a source population for reintroduction to their historical locations. 
Mosquito trap deployed in the field
A mosquito lure trap being tested in the field in the Alaka‘i Plataeau, Kaua‘i.

The two key components for preventing extinction of the ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu, and ‘ākohekohe are time and risk. For each species, very few individuals remain, and they are all in danger of imminent extinction. Each management action takes some time to plan, initiate, and become fully implemented, which might exceed the time-to-extinction. Even for species with longer time to extinction horizons, each successive year that it takes to implement a management action would result in fewer and fewer individuals remaining to help prevent extinction, thus reducing the likelihood of success of that action. 

Shared Experience, Knowledge, and Cultural Viewpoints 

As part of synthesizing opportunities and risks associated with various potential management actions for endangered Hawaiian forest birds, experts in Hawaiian forest bird biology and biocultural practitioners from the Native Hawaiian community shared their individual experience, knowledge, and cultural viewpoints. Including Native Hawaiian cultural perspectives will assist conservation managers in understanding the broader context and implications of their actions and ultimately, in making more informed decisions. 

This group of experts highlighted the relationship of Native Hawaiians to place and to all the things that exist in that space (habitat/ecosystem); when one element or variable is removed from the whole, the relationship is strained. For this reason, some participants expressed opposition to the idea of relocating captive birds to sites outside of Hawai‘i, as this would break the birds’ connection to Native Hawaiians, place, and habitat.  

Photograph overlooking the Alaka‘i Plateau, Kaua‘i
Overlooking the Alaka‘i Plateau from the Alaka‘i Swamp trailhead, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i.

As the original caretakers of their islands, Native Hawaiians have developed substantive knowledge and a reciprocal connection with their environment that is engrained in their identity and preserved in many cultural practices. This enriched and substantive way of valuing connection, quality of life, reciprocity and mutual benefit distinguishes a Native Hawaiian cultural perspective from that of agencies and other groups responsible for natural resources management. Natural resources are cultural resources. The report recognizes potential ideological differences between preventing the extinction of birds at all costs and respecting cultural views that extinction may be preferable to severing cultural connections and quality of life by removing birds from their birthplace. 

Many advisors accepted that translocation and captive care, as temporary means to protect forest birds from immediate threats, are viable options with the condition that Native Hawaiians are allowed to participate and appropriate cultural protocols are observed. Continued respect and involvement of the Native Hawaiian community is essential to meaningful and cooperative efforts. 

The future of endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers will depend on a combination of science, traditional ecological knowledge, and action, with Native Hawaiians exercising their kuleana (rights and responsibilities), knowledge, and cultural practices for the preservation and continuity of their relationship with these endemic native species.  

Mountain image: < 1000 m mosquitos but not native birds, 1000-1500 m limited birds & mosquitoes, >1500 m birds not mosquitoes
Temperature and elevation affect the distribution and intensity of avian malaria in Hawai‘i. Climate change is aiding the rapid movement of disease into disease-free forests. At low elevations, mosquitoes breed year-round, and disease transmission is too intense for most native bird species to persist. At mid-elevations, up to 1500 m, disease is more seasonal, and some native species persist. Only at the highest elevation forests, above 1500 m, are temperatures too cool for mosquitoes and the malaria parasite to develop, resulting in forest habitat with little to no disease transmission. However, climate change is allowing mosquito populations to invade new areas, increasing disease distribution across the Hawaiian Islands.