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'Rock Star' Botanist Rappels Down Cliffs to Save Hawaii's Rarest Plants

Steve Perlman, on the Kalalau cliffs on Kauai, Hawaii, pioneered rappelling down high cliffs to save endangered plant species. (Photo by Ken Wood)
Steve Perlman, on the Kalalau cliffs on Kauai, Hawaii, pioneered rappelling down high cliffs to save endangered plant species. (Photo by Ken Wood)
Heidi Chang

After the heavy rains and high winds of two rare, large storms, Hawaii botanists are hoping the islands’ rarest plants have come through unscathed.

Thanks to its geographic isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Aloha state is home to an incredible bounty of unique native plants, some 1,200 species, 90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world. 

However, Hawaii has also become the endangered species capital of the United States, home to nearly 40 percent of the plants on that list.

Its natural heritage has been disappearing because of invasive plants and animals, habitat loss due to agriculture and development, and unpredictable natural events, such as hurricanes and droughts.   

Rough-terrain work

Field botanist Steve Perlman has been at the forefront of protecting Hawaii’s endangered species for more than 40 years.

He is one of the state's original 'rock star' botanists - literally. In the 1970s, he pioneered rappelling down high cliffs to save the Brighamia insignis - a rare Hawaiian plant commonly known as the Alula.  

"A lot of the botanists in the old days, at least for the first couple hundred years working in Hawaii, would be able to hike the ridges and the valleys and find their species.  But no one had ever really looked at the cliffs," he said. "And so once I learned how to rope onto the cliffs to get to the Brighamia and pollinate them and get the seed, then I started using those same cliff-climbing techniques to get to other plants."

  • Portulaca sclerocarpa grows on cinders and lava substrates. Threats to this rare species include introduced ungulates and plants, fires, and volcanic activity. (Photo by Josh VanDeMark)
  • Cyanea stictophylla is a rare species of flowering plant in the bellflower family, known as haha in Hawaiian. It is known only from the rainforests of Mauna Loa. (Photo by Josh VanDeMark)
  • The sap of the incredibly rare Hawaii tree cotton has been used by native Hawaiians to make red dyes for fishnets and its bark was used to treat thrush. (Photo by Anya Tagawa)
  • A population of Hibiscadelphus stellatus was discovered in a remote, steep valley on the west side of Maui in 2012 by Steve Perlman, Hank Oppenheimer and Keahi Bustament. (Photo by ©Hank Oppenheimer)
  • Geranium arboreum is the only bird-pollinated geranium in the world and was once widespread across the lower slopes of Haleakalā. (Photo by ©Hank Oppenheimer)
  • Gardenia brighamii, also known as nanu and the Forest gardenia, once flourished on all the main Hawaiian islands but is now restricted to Lanai and Oahu. (Photo by by ©Hank Oppenheimer)
  • In the 1970s, Steve Perlman, seen here in the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the island of Kauai, was inspired to rappel off Kaua`i’s high cliffs to save this rare Hawaiian plant known as the Alula. (Heidi Chang/VOA)
  • Steve Perlman and Wendy Kishida inspect a protective cage where one of Hawaii's rarest plants, a Platanthera holochila (native orchid), had been outplanted. Kokee, Kauaʻi, 2011. (Photo by Jon Letman/NTBG)
  • Botanist Steve Perlman collects seeds from of the few remaining Platanthera holochila, a native orchid species which is on the Plant Extinction Prevention program’s target list. (Photo by ©Hank Oppenheimer)

Now in his 60s, Perlman is still rappelling off cliffs, working to save endangered plants that have managed to establish a foothold in places where ravenous goats and pigs can’t reach them. Although his rough-terrain work is dangerous, he says it’s worth it to see a species survive.

"We know the Amazon is losing all these species," he said. "But Hawaii is losing species. There’s an extinction crisis going on here, and we’ve already had over 100 species go extinct."

Extinction prevention

After a long career as a field botanist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Perlman is now the statewide specialist for Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program. The program focuses on protecting species with fewer than 50 plants remaining in the wild.

"This Plant Extinction Prevention Program is putting thousands of native plants, critically endangered plants, back out into the areas on the islands where they grew. And we’re seeing that success," he said.

Through his work, Perlman also continues to discover new species, like the Hibiscadelphus trees that he and his colleagues found growing in a remote, steep valley on the island of Maui.  

His explorations often take him to pristine places, like the highest peak on the island of Moloka`i.

"It’s like being someone like a Charles Darwin who’s just gotten to come to an island that no one’s ever been to.  And everything is interesting: the birds, the insects, the plants.  And you’re like the first person in this kind of place, we may rediscover something old, or we may find something brand new.  And so it’s like the age of discovery is not really over."

Today, with more than half of Hawaii’s native plants threatened with extinction, Perlman’s conservation work remains an inspiration for those who share his dream of making a difference.

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