Photo: ʻakekeʻe
Native birds like the ʻakekeʻe, pictured here, depend upon ʻōhiʻa trees for their survival - but they also help the ʻōhiʻa by searching the liko and leaves for the bugs and parasitic gall lice that attack the trees. - Photo: Bret Nainoa Mossman

Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

By Noah Gomes

Hawaiʻi is infamous as the “extinction capital of the world,” and the “endangered species capital of the U.S.” An incredible 44 land bird species alone have gone extinct here within just the last 250 years, and in 2021 eight species of native birds were lost to us forever. As climate change begins to ravage our planet, we once again find ourselves at the precipice of yet another wave of extinctions of our remaining birds. Four bird species are in danger of immediate extinction perhaps as soon as this year: ʻakikiki, ʻakekeʻe, ʻākohekohe, and kiwikiu. But unlike past extinction events, we now have strategies and technologies that might be able to save some of these birds. We have the options of raising them in captivity, establishing new populations in safer habitats, and eliminating the disease-carrying mosquitoes that kill them.

But should we save these birds? What purpose do they serve to humans, and is it even pono for us to intervene?

These four bird species all serve a function within our forests. Could the forest itself function without them? Probably. But with every loss of a species the infinitely complicated systems that support the forest – and us, become weaker. It’s like removing blocks from a game of Jenga; you can only do it for so long before the whole tower falls down.

Limited word space prevents me from detailing exactly all the known ways that these four bird species support Hawaiʻi, but let’s take the ʻakekeʻe as an example. ʻAkekeʻe are dependant on ʻōhiʻa trees for their survival, but they also provide a service to ʻōhiʻa – they search the liko and the leaves for bugs and parasitic gall lice that attack the trees. What does that mean for ʻōhiʻa when the ʻakekeʻe are gone? How much weaker is an ʻōhiʻa to deadly diseases like Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death without the birds that are designed to care for it? ʻŌhiʻa is the dominant tree in our native forests, so what are the long-reaching effects of losing a bird like the ʻakekeʻe? I donʻt think anyone knows.

One might describe ecological processes and services like these as the kuleana of the akua. That is to say, these phenomena are not the rights or responsibility of kanaka, they are for the akua to regulate and maintain. Knowing this, it’s logical to think that it would be disrespectful for us, as kanaka, to intervene with the extinction of the ʻakekeʻe. Well, I don’t actually think that is the case.

While the akua carry certain responsibilities to the functioning of our world, the relationship between kanaka and akua has always been one of reciprocity. Akua have mana because kanaka hoʻomana them – we give them mana. The akua in turn care for us. The very islands themselves are literally older siblings to mankind, and as the story of Hāloa tells us, siblings are meant to help each other. There is no doubt that akua and the ʻāina itself are family and ancestors to every Hawaiian living today. Our mele and our moʻolelo, not the least of which includes the Kumulipo, tell us this time and time again. Kōkua aku, kōkua mai, reciprocity is key to our existence. It is our kuleana and our nature to interact with the akua and with the ʻāina.

So should we intervene with these extinctions? Yes. We must intervene with the extinction of these birds. To do anything less is to abandon our ancestors, our land, and ourselves.

Noah Gomes is a native of Wahiawā, Oʻahu. He attended school in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, where he still lives. He has passionately loved native Hawaiian birds since he was young.