I vividly remember a meeting of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, in September 2004. In the middle of the meeting, my secretary came into the room and approached me.
She knew that I frowned upon interruptions of Land Board meetings (in fact, this was the one and only time it happened in the over-four years I was chair); but she also knew of my interest and concern about the Po‘ouli.
She handed me a note and shared the great news, which I then shared with the rest of the people at the Land Board meeting.
They caught a Po‘ouli.
The Po‘ouli is a stocky Hawaiian honeycreeper endemic to Maui that was not discovered until 1973. Po‘ouli have short wings and tail, a finch-like bill and distinctive plumage.
Aptly named “black-faced” in Hawaiian, Po‘ouli have a large black face mask, white cheeks, throat and underparts and brown wings and back; no other Hawaiian forest bird is similarly colored.
It has been listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) and probably holds the distinction of being the most endangered bird in the world.
In 1980, the Poʻouli population was estimated at 140 birds. Last seen in 2003 and 2004, there are only two known individuals: one male and one female.
The two remaining birds are at least seven years old and are nearing the end of their reproductive lifespan; unfortunately, they had differing home ranges.
The exact causes of Poʻouli’s rapid population decline, since the species’ discovery in 1973, are not well understood.
The Po‘ouli is likely susceptible to the same factors that threaten other native Hawaiian forest birds, including: loss and degradation of habitat, predation by introduced mammals (including cats, rats and mongoose) and disease.
The remaining Poʻouli individuals were found in windswept, high-elevation rainforest on the northeast slope of Haleakala Volcano.
I remember a previous helicopter trip flying over this region on our way to Waikamoi with folks from The Nature Conservancy; we knew that people were on the ground trying to capture the, then, three remaining Poʻouli.
Crews were attempting to catch the elusive birds to attempt to breed them in captivity; since it appeared natural breeding was not occurring.
Then members of the Maui Forest Bird Conservation Center captured one of the only three remaining Po‘ouli birds that had been known to exist. The male was a very old individual with only one eye.
The other two individuals, believed to be the only remaining Po’ouli in the world, were last seen during this same period and then were never seen again.
In the following days, I was included in the flurry of e-mails for days after this; the excitement, anticipation and hope that each shared in the prospect of saving a species was phenomenal. This was an exciting time to be at DLNR.
However, scientists’ efforts for captive breeding were crushed when, on November 26, 2004, despite attempts to help the bird, he died. (However, scientists successfully took tissue samples for possible future cloning.)
I want to make sure people realize and appreciate the magnitude of this story. We are talking about the possible end of a species. Someone, a few short years ago, had in his hands potentially the last bird of its species.
Sad as this story ends, it is an example of the kind of stuff that happens in resource management, especially in a place like Hawaiʻi where there are so many plants and animals that are endangered.
There is a lot of good work being done by a lot of good people to save a lot of species at risk. Thank you to all.