Photo Courtesy of Jim Denny

In a recent DLNR Press release and news conference (see below), experts discuss the extinction crisis faced by some of Hawai’i’s rarest forest birds. A report, titled Hawaiian Forest Bird Conservation Strategies for Minimizing the Risk of Extinction, was presented to decision makers offering a selection of actions to address the current crisis. Also included in the report are conservation strategies for other species. Experts warn that if no action is take, four species of forest birds would face extinction within 1-10 years and  as many as 11 additional extinctions would occur in the next decade.

(Honolulu) One of the most dramatic and troubling impacts of accelerating climate change is the expansion of mosquito range into upper elevation Hawaiian forest. Avian malaria, a disease transmitted by invasive mosquitoes, is driving the potential extinction of four native honeycreepers: ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu, and ʻākohekohe. Kiwikiu and ‘akikiki have fewer than 200 birds remaining and could go extinct in the next two years. A single bite from an infected mosquito can kill.

State and federal conservation managers recently shared a report that provides the most up-to-date scientific and biocultural information available to help inform emergency management decisions, aimed at saving the birds. You can read that report here. The news conference video can be viewed below.

Dr. Robert Reed, Deputy Director, U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center (USGS-PIERC) states, “The report sought the expertise of biologists representing multiple organizations and biocultural experts from the Native Hawaiian community across the state. Their perspectives and knowledge are summarized in the report and will inform conservation managers working to prevent these four forest bird species from going extinct.”

Without intervention, the report paints a grim future for the birds. There are many fewer birds when compared to the last two decades and their available range has been significantly reduced as species move higher into the mountains to escape mosquitoes:

  • ‘Akikiki: 45 birds remain on Kaua‘i, their range has been reduced by 68%, and there are 41 birds in captivity
  • ‘Akeke‘e: 638 birds remain in the wild, their range has been reduced by 60%, and there are 7 birds in captivity
  • Kiwikiu: 135 birds remain on Maui, their range has been reduced by 41%, and there are 2 birds in captivity
  • ʻĀkohekohe: 1,657 birds remain on Maui, their range has been reduced by 61%, and there are no birds in captivity

Published by the University of Hawai’i at Hilo Hawai‘i Cooperative Studies Unit, which has worked closely with USGS-PIERC and its partners over many years to conduct field research and analyses that contributed to these demographic estimates. The consensus of the experts surveyed found that “in the long-term, the threat posed by invasive, non-native mosquitoes and avianmalaria must be addressed. Until avian malaria can be stopped from spreading, all native forest birds will be at risk of disappearing.

Dr. Earl Campbell, Field Supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office said, “The only long-term solution for many of the forest birds’ survival is landscape-scale control of the invasive mosquitoes. We’re working with the State of Hawai‘i and partners in the Birds Not Mosquitoes Working Groupto develop and implement a plan for controlling mosquitoes using a naturally occurring bacteria that prevents them from reproducing.”

That’s one of three management options evaluated in the report produced by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), FWS, and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations(ONHR).“While most participants thought immediate steps are warranted to prevent species extinction, they also felt that the welfare of individual birdsin their natural environmentsupported by Native Hawaiian cultural practitionersisequally important,” said Stanton Enomoto, ONHRʻs Senior Program Director. “It’s akin to ‘ohana supporting an ill family member undergoing treatment here in Hawaiʻi. ‘Ohana support forthese bird species not only enhances their chance for recovery, but it sustains the biocultural relationshipand preserves theirlegacyin the event they decline towards extinction,” Enomoto explained.

In addition to mosquito control, the other conservation actionsidentified in the report include:

  • Bringing birds into captive care until such time landscape-scale mosquito control is achieved; and
  • Using conservation translocation to move birds from forests threatened by avian malaria or captivity to disease-free sites.

Currently, captive care facilities in Hawai‘i are close to full. The agencies are committed to placing birds in local facilities first and they are seeking the capacity, resources, and partnerships to increase captive care capacity here in Hawai‘i as an interim solution to the extinction crisis, meant only to prevent these species from vanishing from Earth.

The report does not recommend a specific course of action but evaluates which actions might prevent extinction and what decision makers should consider when they implement any of the evaluated actions.

“The study provides dire predictions for these four bird species. The report is informing the urgent decisions we need to make as conservation agencies,” said David Smith, Administrator of the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW). “We are working with FWS and a coalition of partners to determine which steps we can take to help prevent these birds from going extinct in the next one – ten years. We are committed to following the regulatory and public engagement processes required to take action on any decisions.”