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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs