News / Science & Technology

'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.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Patrick from: Ca
August 13, 2014 5:39 AM
Bravo!

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs