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Hawaiian forest bird initiative secures $3M boost to annihilate mosquitos, save birds in East Maui : Maui Now


(l-r) Earl Campbell, field supervisor of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, Martha Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natalie Gates, superintendent of Haleakalā National Park at Hosmer Grove Campground on Feb. 20, 2024. (PC: JD Pells)

The Hawaiian Forest Bird Keystone Initiative, a joint federal and state plan to protect native forest birds, announced an additional $3 million toward conservation efforts following the adoption of a final Environmental Assessment earlier this month.

“Specifically, the money will be used to address avian malaria,” US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams told Maui Now. “It’s also so we can focus on [bird] habitat.” This supplements the $16 million committed by the US Department of the Interior last year.

Found nowhere else on Earth, at least 12 species of Hawaii’s birds – including the ʻakikiki, kiwikiu and ʻakekeʻe – are threatened with imminent extinction in the next few years from habitat loss, invasive species, climate change and disease, such as avian malaria spread by non-native mosquitoes.

Insights from the skies

At Haleakalā National Park yesterday, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and conservationists involved in Birds, Not Mosquitoes shed light on the ongoing project to save native birds on East Maui. 


The strategy involves releasing new male mosquitoes treated with a bacteria called Wolbachia to mate with existing females, rendering them incapable of producing viable offspring and causing the mosquito population to collapse. This process follows the Incompatible Insect Technique (IIT).

Approximately 250,000 of these mosquitoes are released twice per week on specific locations across 3,000 acres of East Maui, per the National Parks Service. This process has been ongoing since November 2023.

Mosquito-filled containers – described as “chewing tobacco pucks” – are pushed through tubes via helicopter, launching the insects into the ecosystem, according to Earl Campbell, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office field supervisor. As the container falls, it releases about one thousand mosquitoes. “They are ‘sleepy’ when they arrive, because they’ve been kept cool, and when they wake up, they fly off into the forest,” said Campbell.

Verily Life Sciences, the life research arm owned by the company Alphabet, which also owns Google, breeds the mosquitoes being released on East Maui. According to the Hawaiian Forest Bird Keystone Initiative, all of the mosquitoes used in the project are males, which, unlike females, do not bite and spread diseases to humans or animals.


“Right now, [IIT] is buying us time until we can come up with something that is perhaps permanent and also perhaps, cheaper and easier,” said Natalie Gates, superintendent of Haleakalā National Park. “We’re buying time so these birds don’t go extinct.”

Future prospects of the initiative

ʻākohekohe (crested honeycreeper, Palmeria dolei) PC: Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

If successful and cost effective, representatives say IIT may not only be repeated on Maui, but even possibly expanded to reestablish bird communities in areas like lowlands, which have been devoid of this suite of native birds since avian diseases were introduced to the Valley Isle. 

“You know, our hope is that we would be able to sustain it, if it works, for multiple years,” said Campbell. “Because you need that protection, and over time we would learn how to use the tool in different ways.”

Campbell said it’s going to take “probably a year” or “probably by next fall” before data from the IIT on East Maui can be shared with the public. One reason for this timeline is that mosquito populations vary “normally” with the season and the location, so an expedited analysis may not represent the success or failure of the method, according to Campbell.


“The immediate results we’ll get will be things dealing with mosquitoes, but our goal is actually to bring back birds and when you’re monitoring bird populations, it takes them time to reproduce every year and build up numbers,” said Campbell. “So our answers for the birds are going to take a little bit longer than the mosquito ones.”

With $3 million additional funds enroute, the Department of the Interior is proposing several new actions on Maui and Kauaʻi related to translocating species to mosquito free areas, engaging Native Hawaiian communities and captive care. 

Translocation of Haleakalā’s birds to mosquito-free areas has yet to commence, but an assessment is being carried out, specifically for ʻākohekohe on East Maui. Campbell said he thinks translocation is a possible next step, but not before having a discussion with the community. 

“I think one thing that’s important too for people to remember is, when you look at translocation from a biocultural perspective, when Queen Liliʻuokalani translocated ʻōʻō from Big Island to Kauaʻi,” said Campbell. “There is a historical precedent for native birds to be translocated.”

Birds native to Hawaiʻi are more than just pollinators of the ecosystem; they also contain cultural significance in Native Hawaiian history throughout material culture, the kinolau (body form) of dieties and traditional knowledge. In the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, birds appear before even the gods, as their kupuna (elders).

The US Fish and Wildlife director’s visit to Haleakalā marked her first time to the sacred volcano. When asked about being there in person, Williams told Maui Now, “It’s very powerful.”

“One of the reasons that I’m so interested in being here, other than realizing the incredible privilege and gift to be welcomed here and to learn from all of our partners, is that the connection that Hawaiians have to these birds – as part of the ʻāina – is model that I want to learn from,” she said. “I think we are, as a culture in the lower 48, trying to learn from and reconnect lots of people to nature, to the land, to the birds, to the plants around them. I think that this is an extraordinary example of that.”

Source: Maui News

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