Global Impact: Why is Hawai'i Named The Extinction Capital Of The World?


Imagine what it would be like to be a bird on an island. You’ve got a good thing going: You’ve lived in your paradise for years, eating your favorite fruit and finding the perfect nest location. Nothing can hurt you, you’re unstoppable. Until you’re not. One day you notice these unfamiliar creatures who eat all your food and trample over the rest, and you’re hungry. You think this will be fine, you can eat the food off of the upper branches, until you begin to feel ill. This is also a feeling you’ve never felt before; you’ve been bitten by something. The bite stings and makes you too weak to leave the nest and you wonder if you’ll perish this way. This personification is an example what living on Hawai’i is like for these native species. In just our lifetime, dozens of species have gone extinct and not just the birds, plants too. Although Hawai’i in area makes up of less than 0.2% of the United States, it is home to 25% of the world’s endangered species according to the IUCN Red List.

This began with Polynesian migrants. They arrived on the land, enticed by what the bounty of land provided in food and biological diversity and brought their dogs, chickens and pigs with them. It is suggested that by over-consumption, they aided the Moa Nalu, a 4-foot flightless goose that laid eggs the size of a coconut, into extinction. Hawai’i took another blow in the 18th and 19th centuries when vast forests were cleared for Sandalwood trees, which were desired after due to their rich captivating scent used in perfumes. Other birds were also hunted incessantly for their feathers during this time to be used as decoration for nobility caps and large areas of native vegetation were reduced by the grazing of their livestock.

There weren’t even terrestrial mammals in Hawai’i until the Polynesians arrived except the, now endangered, Hawai’ian hoary bat. Terrestrial mammals couldn’t cross the pacific to reach the island without the assistance of humans and their boats. The Europeans arrived, via Captain James Cook’s voyage and brought rats and disease. The Europeans also thought of Hawai’i as an undisturbed paradise, so they disturbed it. They brought their cattle, sheep and goats and set up shop. Land was cleared for them and for growing crops since the land was so plentiful. Plants such as guava, pineapple, sugar cane, and mulberries were introduced to the island during this time as crops. Crops and other introduced invasive plants are great at getting around. They grow quickly and high, shading out native plants and out-competing them for resources. The cattle animals also find native plants to be delectable, as the plants have not developed defenses against this form of predation that would make them unpalatable.

When trade began on the shores of Hawai’i it brought Roof Rats after World War II and they wiped out most Laysan Finches from the island. Feral housecats and mongooses were introduced to manage the rat problem. Creating a new problem to fix the old, typical. Their populations exploded across the islands killing a substantial proportion of the native avifauna (birds). These disruptions to the ecosystem were all done relatively intentionally, so that’s not even to mention the other pathogens and plants brought by accident, through contaminated materials. Then by the late 20th century came the tourists, population growth on the island, extraction of natural resources for human consumption, and lastly our changing climate. The relatively isolated ecosystem had no chance.

There were 142 species of bird before western arrival. This is known because of the fossil remains preserved in molten rock along the island. 34 are identified as endangered and the other 105 of those species have been identified as extinct. These birds, unfamiliar with these newfound feral predators and the increase in food resource competition were caught off-guard. They had a paradise. There weren’t even biting insects on the island before westerners arrived, now they are infested with mosquitoes. With mosquitoes comes illnesses they spread such as pox and malaria, which these birds’ immune systems are unfamiliar with handling. So unfamiliar in fact, that with one bite from a mosquito native birds such as the 'I'iwi perish within 3-4 weeks. This epidemic is so widespread that native birds are generally only found at higher elevations along the islands to avoid the mosquitoes. Mosquitoes and other biting insects are definitely the worst plague I could imagine subjecting place to.

Why isn’t Hawai’i fixing this? They are one of the richest nations on earth, they should do something right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. You see, although Hawai’i is an incredibly large tourist attraction, their problems stem even deeper than the birds and by deeper, I mean physically. I’m talking about their beach sand. On KaMilo beach over 50% of their ‘sand’ is really made of decomposing bits of plastic and it’s taking over the beach. The plastic we use never leaves it just gets smaller and, in this case, becomes the part of the beach. The deeper you dig into the sand the more plastic you can dig up. Some of it is easily recognizable as your fork you threw away after eating your to-go pasta, but some of it is so small that from a distance you couldn’t even tell that it wasn’t sand. All of this plastic come from the pacific. It swirls around the ocean in the current until it gets washed up on the shore, and this is that unlucky stretch of land. There are too many problems going on here to just solve instantaneously.

Next time you think of Hawai’i or plan your next vacation, hopefully you’ll think a little harder about how the ecosystem is affected by it. That bird that you identified with earlier is still there, attempting to locate a more hospitable part of the island to reside within in an endless search. The homes of these species have been changed permanently, least we can do its be aware enough to not aid in the destruction.