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

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic 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.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid