The cloud forests of Maui do not represent the Hawaii of most people’s imagination. At more than five thousand feet above the island’s white sands beaches and hardened black lava flows the rain-soaked cloud forest is always a bit cool, cold even. The daily rains run like a river off of my wide-brimmed hat finding passage into the collar of my raincoat and soaking my clothes beneath. When it isn’t raining the cloud forest is enveloped in a thick mist that mocks any attempt to keep my socks dry. There are no trails save for a few narrow paths hacked out of the forest with machetes. And while the absence of plants along these paths is supposed to improve travel the thick mud slick that forms in their stead holds me firmly in place sucking the rubber boots right off of my feet. Although this isn’t the Hawaii of most people’s imagination, it is the Hawaii I came to know as the real Hawaii.
When Tony, my crew leader, picks me up from the airport in 2004 the real Hawaii appears serene from the coconut-lined highway. Between towering hotels with perfectly manicured lawns I catch glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. I see surfers straddling their boards in the water waiting for the next big wave. We pass wild and exotic looking plants and restaurants where tourists are sipping pineapple-flavored drinks with umbrellas in them. We pass houses perched on bluffs with owners that visit just a few weeks a year and tents tucked in trees on beaches where people live. Sea level is where everyone lives. Perhaps this is why no one knew the Po’ouli honeycreeper – a small, round forest bird – existed in Maui’s cloud forests until 1973.
The Po’ouli was an easy bird to miss. The crown of its head and back is the color of wet sand. Its belly and neck are white. And as if its drab color and remote location in this tangled forest wasn’t enough to keep it hidden the Po’ouli wears a black mask almost in defiance of the flashy reds and yellows of Maui’s more well-known and charismatic species.
In a time when the curves of the earth can be displayed in an instant on Google Earth the discovery of a new species seems unlikely, but it happens every day. The International Institute for Species Exploration produces an annual top 10 list that is whittled down from hundreds of nominations. The psychedelic frogfish found off of Indonesia’s coast made the list in 2010. Each individual bears a unique pattern much like a human fingerprint which helps it blend in with the coral reefs it inhabits.
The sneezing monkey found in Myanmar made the list in 2012. The monkey’s upturned nose causes it to sneeze whenever it rains. And just this year the Indonesian frog found on the island of Sulawesi made the list because it is the only known frog in the world to give birth to live tadpoles.
For the 1.7 million organisms described to date another 10 to 12 million species remain unknown to science. But by the time these species are discovered many will already be in trouble. Others will have passed us by without anyone knowing they existed at all.
When I arrive on Maui in 2004 the Po’ouli had withered from a few hundred individuals to three. I had joined a team of biologists to help capture these three birds in a last ditch effort to save the world’s rarest species.
The decision to pull the Po’ouli from the wild was made the year before after an unsuccessful translocation experiment. By now they were considered old and no one knew if they were still alive or even capable of breeding in captivity.
We spend weeks in the home range of one female who was located most recently. We set up fine mesh nets designed to safely entangle birds as they fly into them. Over the weeks I hold in my hands Maui Alauahio – small yellow-green birds that follow me through the forest foraging on the insects I flush from the vegetation. We capture wild-feathered Akohekohe’ and black and red Apapane. Once we catch an endangered Kiwikiu whose parrot-like bill is adapted to splitting open branches in search of insect larvae.
But no Po’ouli. Not even a glimpse until one day I hear a soft chip I don’t recognize. I turn to look and a black-masked Po’ouli flies past me and disappears into the forest below. Our team has several more sightings over the next few weeks and we keep moving the nets around in hopes that the Po’ouli will fly into one of them.
What I love about being in the wilderness is that expectation has no place. The world will do what it does and if I’m lucky I might bear witness. The day we capture the Po’ouli is a rare clear day. My nets are set up in an area farthest from the most recent sighting, but there she is dangling from the fine mesh net looking at me from her one good eye. The other eye is sealed shut from some past injury. The black-masked Po’ouli has added an eye patch.
We bring her back to the cabin and put her into a cage with branches, moss, and her favorite food – apple snails — and wait for the helicopter to come take her out of the wild. The mist has closed in on the forest and we watch as the helicopter disappears into cloud.
The Po’ouli was discovered the year the Endangered Species Act became law. The Act is said to be one of the most important conservation edicts ever established. Journalist Charles C. Mann and economist Mark L. Plummer write in their book Noah’s Choice that the Act is based on what they call Noah’s Principle – all species are equal and all species should and deserve to be saved. The authors argue this notion is idealistic. Unethical even. We will have to decide which species can be saved, which species are worth saving, and which species we should let go of.
In other words, biologists should perform an ecological triage as Michelle Nijhuis writes in “Which Species Will Live” in the August 2012 issue of Scientific American. Ecological triage is based on saving those species which perform an important function like grizzly bears as top predators or those with unique evolutionary traits like California condors — relicts of the Pleistocene. And finally, efforts should go toward protecting biological hotspots such as the Madrean pine-oak woodlands in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. In effect creating a new Noah’s Ark where not everyone is allowed on the boat.
As we search for the remaining two Po’ouli the captive bird begins to languish and the wildlife veterinarians do not know why. Although their efforts to save her are heroic they won’t succeed. On Thanksgiving morning in 2004 the Po’ouli exhales her last breath. And on her last breath rides the fate of an entire species. She was supposed to save her kind. We were supposed to find her a mate. It was a lot to ask.
When the Po’ouli died there were articles in newspapers informing the world of the probable loss of another species. Later it was discovered the she was really a he. Biologists thought that the two remaining birds were also male which would have made our efforts futile. After the Po’ouli died we wander the forest for weeks listening for that soft chip note, but hear nothing. Eventually, my time on Maui comes to an end and others take my place on the team. The weeks became years and still no Po’ouli.
As I write this from my home in Wyoming, it is bitterly cold outside and a fresh blanket of snow lies over the land like a bandage. Later, while John and I take a walk with our dog Meg, John will point out the tracks of a cottontail rabbit and a fox tracking it through the snow. Their mark is a temporary one that will be concealed by the next snowfall. They are all temporary marks. The rabbit, the fox, my boots, Meg’s paw prints, the Po’ouli’s soft chip in my ear. Nothing is permanent except the loss of a species. That cannot be undone.