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Saving the Alalā and the Nēnē: A Work in Progress

Saving species never involves a one-size-fits-all solution, so conservationists are constantly making progress as they learn how to prevent extinction.

Preventing extinctions of native island species is no simple task, and no island chain proves that more than the Hawaiian Islands, which have the unfortunate moniker of “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” The remote islands have a diversity of endemic species but also have one of the most severe invasive species problems in the world. This combination has proven fatal for many native Hawaiian species, but conservationists have also dedicated their lives to saving some of these species.

Although Hawai’i has alarming rates of extinction, incredible conservation efforts have also brought back a number of species from the brink. The Hawaiian Goose, also known as the Nēnē, represents one such success story where the species was wiped off of all except Hawai’i Island in the 1950s. Conservationists stepped in and began a captive breeding program, and after years of attempted releases and a learning curve, today’s Nēnē population thrives in Kaua’i. Joey Mello, East Hawai’i Wildlife Manager comments:

We had probably been releasing Nēnē in the wrong place. … I mean, what winter nesting goose would want to have a gosling in 34-degree temperatures in rainy country?

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A pair of Nēnē along a road in Kaua’i. Credit: Byron Chin

As the conservationists learned the keys to releasing the Nēnē goslings, their attempts became more successful and an increased focus on predator control and habitat restoration helped the species rebound. Now conservationists are in the midst of the same process with the Hawaiian Crow, also known as the Alalā.

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Juvenile Alalā have blue eyes that darken as they age. Credit: San Diego Zoo Global

In the Early 2000s the Alalā was declared Extinct-in-the-wild after invasive predators and habitat loss drove the species alarmingly close to extinction–only a few captive individuals remained. After 15 years, conservationists have rebuilt the captive population and have begun to release the birds into the wild. Even after successes with the Nēnē, releasing the Alalā will take time. Out of the first five Alalā were released last year, two were returned to captivity after three succumbed to predation and starvation.

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A captive-bred Alalā. Credit: San Diego Zoo Global

Conservationists then began working with the remaining captive individuals to increased predator avoidance training. Now after months of training, 11 Alalā are flying free in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve. And while the releases will continue and there are likely to be ups and downs in the project, there is hope that a stable population of Alalā will soon fly free in Hawai’i.

Hawai’i might be the extinction capital of the world, but with any luck, some of their remaining endemic species can be saved from extinction.

Featured Photo: Nēnē (Endemic Hawaiian Geese) at the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, Kauai. Credit: Kaleomokuokanalu Chock
Source: Honolulu Magazine

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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