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by Nikita Mendonca, staff writer

More than 10,000 indigenous species of plants are found in Hawai‘i today, about half of the number that existed before humans arrived. About 90 percent of these are exclusive to Hawai‘i, and many of these species are endangered. The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i takes great measures to try and preserve these precious species.

“ Before the arrival of humans, Hawai‘i’s ecosystem extended from the mountains to the sea,” said Grady Timmons, communications director for the Hawai‘i chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Today many of those ecosystems have shrunk severely to an ever-narrowing belt of land between the mountaintops and ever-encroaching urban environments.

This pattern of habitat loss is due to the expansion of the earth’s human population and activities. The age of exploration in the 15th century and has been recognized as the beginning of a dangerous pattern of destruction to species survival in the early 20th century. This recognition lead to the creation of the Nature Conservancy in 1946 by a group of ecologists who decided to use their knowledge of nature to actively conserve the world’s threatened natural areas. Its mission is to “preserve the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”

The main tool the Conservancy would use to accomplish its conservation efforts would be land acquisition. Through ownership, the Conservancy could sequester pristine ecosystems and prevent the development of human activities such as farming, manufacturing, or suburban homes.
“ In Hawai‘i, the Nature Conservancy has about 40,000 acres of land preserves”: two on Kauai, one on O‘ahu, three on Moloka‘i, one on Lanai, two on Maui, and three on the Big Island,” said Timmons.

“ Conservation protects biodiversity, the plants, animals, and microorganisms that regulate the essential things like the air we breathe and the water we drink,” he added. Timmons explained that the Nature Conservancy has chapters in all 50 of the United States and about 30 countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Australia and countries throughout the Asia Pacific region, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

In Hawai‘i, Timmons explained, the Nature Conservancy works specifically to protect the native species, the “plants and animals that were in Hawai‘i before men arrived, bringing with them different types of invasive species that began to take over Hawai‘i’s indigenous and endemic species.”

Hawai‘i is a rare region, Timmons explained, because its isolation allowed its ecosystems to thrive uninterrupted. However, “The very thing that makes Hawai’i so unique, its isolation, also makes it vulnerable,” said Timmons. Because Hawai’i is isolated, its native life is unable to adapt quickly to exposure to foreign species.

“ If we are able to remove these threats, life will recover over time,” said Timmons. In order to accomplish this, the Nature Conservancy uses a number of methods.

One of the threats involves feral animals that “open up pathways for invasive plants,” said Timmons. To prevent wild animals from entering the Nature Conservancy land preserves, the organization constructs fences around them and sets traps for unwelcome pests. The conservancy allows community members to hunt non-native hoofed animals—pigs, goats, deer, and wild cattle—for food. Animals captured in traps set by the Nature Conservancy are given to community organizations for use as food.

To control invasive plant species, the Nature Conservancy uses three basic approaches. It manually removes the plants, destroys them with herbicides, and occasionally attempts biocontrol with another specie.

“ Biocontrol introduces natural predators into the area. Predators that present the fewest ramifications are used to help remove the invasive species. This method is heavily tested because there have been failed attempts in the past,” said Timmons, referring to the spectacular failure of the mongoose, a diurnal predator brought in to control rats, which are nocturnal.
Efforts to preserve Hawai‘i’s indigenous species are open to the public.

“ Right now, our volunteer program is not too big, but we do have some opportunities for people to help out in our office with administrative work or data-basing,” said Staab. “This way students can meet the staff and get to know more about what we do.

“ We are also always looking for young people who have special skills to offer,” said Staab, “such as graphic design, to help us out with projects.”

To volunteer, contact the Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Janice Staab.



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