Partnerships make everything possible

On my drive home a few weeks ago, I heard a radio story about the 2018 Recovery Champion Awards for breeding the endangered native bird, the ‘akikiki, or Kauai creeper. Conservation work can be challenging, and ever since rapid ‘ohi‘a death was found on our island, a thread of fear has spread through the conservation community. But hearing about those ‘akikiki birds and the awards recognizing friends and colleagues with the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, the San Diego Zoo Global and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave me hope.

Conservation is a team sport — I can think of more than a dozen individuals and at least eight different organizations that helped in various ways to get us to 45 ‘akikiki hatched, raised and cared for in captivity. Partnerships are the life blood of our conservation work on Kauai, across Hawaii and around the globe. I am inspired by the many ways our individual projects lead to outcomes that support one another. For example, at The Nature Conservancy we focus on protecting forest and marine habitat rather than individual species, but this work supports endangered species recovery by providing our native plants and animals with a safe home.

The eggs collected for the successful breeding of ‘akikiki in captivity came from lands TNC manages on Kauai. We are able to manage those lands because the county Department of Water and the 11 landowners who belong to the Kauai Watershed Alliance share a commitment to the long-term protection of Kauai’s upper watershed areas.

Hawaii has 1.7 million acres of forested lands, over half of which (66%) are privately owned or managed.

We’re grateful that so many landowners across the state have joined watershed partnerships to enable forest management. These partnerships focus on increasing the health of forested areas that are relatively intact, which tend to be toward the tops of mountains on each of the main Hawaiian Islands.

On Kauai, through the KWA, that means managing areas in the central highlands, including Wainiha, the East Alaka‘i, Koai‘e, Drinking Glass and Halehaha. These areas are extremely remote and, in some cases, only accessible by helicopter. They are a potential home for the ‘akikiki as well as other endangered forest birds like the ‘akeke‘e and puaiohi, the small Kauai thrush.

Native forest birds have been driven up slope by introduced avian disease and many of the other threats we manage to protect the source of our fresh water: forest loss due to habitat modification for human use, and invasive plants and animals.

Our primary focus is managing Kauai forests for the fresh water they provide both through clean, reliable surface water, and the slow and steady recharge of our underground aquifer. KWA lands, which encompass 146,386 acres, are the source of 60% of the island’s fresh water.

Fortunately, the actions we take to protect that water — constructing fences and removing invasive weeds and feral animals — also benefit the native plants, animals, insects and birds that rely on the forest.

For example, the Halehaha area has been fenced and pig-free since 2017, and the plant community is rebounding. Our vegetation monitoring plots show understory cover (vegetation over 1 meter tall) jumped from 26% to 40% in short order, and patches of the ho‘i‘o fern, an edible fiddlehead fern which can grow head-high, have become so dense they are difficult to walk through.

This should help native birds, which need a robust understory for foraging.

Thanks to teams of researchers studying rapid ‘ohi‘a death, we know now that removing pigs and other feral animals helps reduce the spread and potentially the long-term impact of this deadly fungus.

And thanks to a recent grant from the Virginia &Colin Lennox Botanical Research Trust Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation, we will advance the study of how to build fences in native watershed forests where this fungus is present or a threat.

This new project is another example of how “we are all in this together” in conservation in Hawaii. Partnerships make our work possible, and by continuing to work together, by sharing our knowledge and research to find the best solutions, we all benefit.

Through conservation partnerships, we can all be nourished by the fresh water that enables life to flourish on these islands, and we can ensure the survival of the native plants and animals that arrived here before us.

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Melissa Fisher is the director of Kauai programs for The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii.

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