The Hawaiian Islands are home to bird species that are found nowhere else on the planet, exhibiting a staggering array of adaptations to their unique habitats. These natural treasures are integral elements of Hawaiian cultural heritage and the ecology of the islands. The jewels in the crown are the unique and diverse group of Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae).
Before the arrival of humans, endemic birds were abundant from the montane cloud forests to the rain forests by the sea. Unfortunately, many Hawaiian bird species are now critically endangered or already extinct. Of more than 140 native species and subspecies that were present prior to the colonization of the islands by humans, more than half have been lost to extinction. Among the remaining 37 endemic species, 30 are federally listed as endangered, and many of these are critical with fewer than 500 individuals.
The causes of these declines are numerous and extensive, including habitat destruction and degradation, introduced predators, and avian diseases. Captive management provides the opportunity for “species intensive care,” preventing extinction and promoting recovery. Yet management will only be a successful recovery technique if it is used within the context of a multi-faceted approach to conservation, which focuses on ecosystem restoration and the mitigation of the many threats to wild populations.
The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) is a unique collaboration between the San Diego Zoo Global's Institute for Conservation Research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S Geological Survey Biological Resources Discipline, and private landowners (e.g. Kamehameha Schools). The HEBCP comprises two captive breeding facilities, the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers (KBCC and MBCC), and works at a number of field sites around Hawaii. Using intensive propagation and release techniques, the HEBCP aims to re-establish self-sustaining populations of critically endangered birds or augment existing ones. More than 1,000 birds have been successfully raised by the HEBCP since 1993.
The flagship of the Hawaiian forest is the ‘Alala (Hawaiian Raven), a species that has not been confirmed in the wild since 2002. The entire known population contains 110 birds (November 2013), with 109 managed at either KBCC or MBCC, plus one at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center, receiving special treatment from the Division of Reproductive Physiology. The ‘alala is the primary focus of the HEBCP, with the goal of increasing the population and eventually re-establishing these birds in a protected habitat in the wild.
The three other focal species for the HEBCP are the puaiohi (small Kauai thrush), Maui parrotbill, and palila, all of which are critically endangered in the wild. Since 1999, 200 puaiohi have been released back into the Alaka`i Wilderness Preserve on the island of Kauai. With the aim of establishing a second viable population of palila, successful trial releases have been undertaken at Pu`u Mali on the northern slopes of the Mauna Kea, giving great hopes for future population recovery. The captive component of Maui parrotbill recovery is still in its early stages. Additionally, more than 400 nene (Hawaiian goose) from the HEBCP’s two facilities have been released throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
Finally, although the KBCC and MBCC are not open to the general public, more than 1,500 local school children and other special-interest groups visit the facilities each year as part of the conservation education program.