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Hawaii Considered America's Endangered Species Capital


The Hawaiian archipelago represents the most isolated group of islands in the world. Plants and animals that are common to many people elsewhere only made it to these islands in the last few hundred years -- most of them, only in the last few decades. The introduction of thousands of new species, together with increased human activity, have put many Hawaiian species on the endangered list. Producer Zulima Palacio spent a week with a group of scientists who are trying to save Hawaii's bio-diversity. Rosanne Skirble narrates the story.

Steve Perlman spends a lot of time hanging out in remote regions of the Pacific. It is his passion and his work, not a sport. He collects rare plants on the verge of extinction.

"I think hospice training would probably help us,” he says, “because we are doing what is called the plant extinction prevention programs and so all the plants in that program, 120 species, have less than 50 individuals."

Perlman works as a field researcher for the U.S. National Tropical Botanical Garden on the island of Kauai. He is an authority on Hawaiian flora. He has discovered nearly 30 species and has rediscovered 20 or more that were thought to be extinct. "I have gone back and actually witnessed extinction at least a dozen times, when I go back and the last one is dead. The first time we kind of took our hats off and had a moment of silence."

But he says now the rate of extinction is more common and Hawaii has become "the endangered species capital of the United States."

Chipper Wichman is the director of the Tropical Botanical Garden. He and his team of scientists are leading the efforts to save Hawaii's rich bio-diversity. "Ninety percent of our dry land ecosystem is now completely gone; our moist ecosystem, 61 percent. Probably the strongest ones are the wet ecosystems in the middle of the island where people don't want to live or develop, is too rough or remote."

Another Tropical Botanical Garden scientist, Michael Wysong, explains why invasive species are a problem. "Everything behind me is schefflera, what some people call octopus trees. This invasion occurred in the last 25 years."

Wysong says schefflera, along with the African tulip and the Waiawi Brazilian tree, have taken over much of Hawaii's natural forest. Their dense root system prevents the native plants from growing.

Still another Botanical Garden scientist, Dave Burney, has studied the Makauwahi Sinkhole, a set of caves and passages that have turned out to be an important archeological site. "About 400 years ago there was a mega tsunami here, some kind of humongous wave that came over this wall and brought huge rocks not associated with the cave environment."

Burney and his wife Lida have worked in the cave for the past 14 years, sifting through mounds of sediments. They have found bones of extinct animals and plants. They have found seeds that allowed them to bring back plants that had disappeared. Their findings have allowed him to rewrite some of the natural history of Hawaii.

The director of education for the gardens, Gaugau Tavana, explains why it is important to involve the entire community in trying to maintain nature's balance.

"We are stewards of the land. Stewards of nature and the natural resources that have been given to us; and we are only here for a short period of time. We are going to leave and pass it on to next generations. The question is, what we are going to leave to others to come," asks Tavana.

Holding on to traditions, medicinal plants and hundreds of plants forgotten by many, the Tropical Botanical Garden continues its efforts to save and preserve nature as it was in the past, for many generations to come.

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