by Shannon Wianecki
originally for Hawaii Stories
In June 1962, an unlikely parade ambled down the cindery, zigzag track to the heart of Haleakala National Park on Maui. Chaperoned by a few wildlife biologists and some pack mules, a dozen Boy Scouts navigated Sliding Sands Trail and headed across the heart of the volcanic crater. Each of the scouts was packing a cardboard box containing a goose.
The geese in the boxes had come all the way from England — not on their own wing power, but in the hold of an airplane. Nonetheless, they were bona fide Hawaiian birds: Branta sandvicensis, or nene as they’re known in the Islands.
As winds blasted Haleakala’s 10,000-foot summit, the scouts of Troop 56 trekked 10 miles across the crater’s moonscape. They were headed for the grasslands at Paliku, the cabin farthest from the park’s summit, which catches the little rain that falls in Haleakala.
“I carried three birds,” remembers Carl Eldridge, who was 17 at the time. “We struggled but we all helped each other. It was a fun thing for us. We got to go hiking. We knew the importance of the bird.”
When the boys finally freed their cargo at Paliku, the nene waddled out of the boxes and stepped foot on Maui, home again for the first time in 70 years.
The geese came from the West originally: An estimated half a million years ago, a flock of Canada geese was blown off course and landed in Hawaii. Their descendants evolved into three distinct species: nene, nene nui, and the giant Hawaiian goose. In response to their new environment, the birds became more terrestrial. Over time, the black webbing on their feet shrank, replaced by thick pads better suited for lava plains. Their wings grew shorter. Rather than flying south for winter, the nene stayed put.
When humans arrived in the Islands, things began to change for the birds. The Polynesians brought rats and dogs, which preyed on the birds, stole their eggs, and trashed their nests. Because nene evolved without mammalian predators, they made easy targets. Nene hatchlings can take three months to learn to fly, during which time the parents molt — rendering the entire family vulnerable.
Humans, too, hunted the birds for their meat, eggs, and feathers. The nene nui and the giant Hawaiian goose, both believed to have been flightless, vanished soon after the arrival of Polynesians. The smaller, more agile nene escaped its cousins’ fate, though they remained imperiled.
After the arrival of Westerners, many wetlands in the Islands were destroyed to make way for sugar and pineapple plantations. The introduction of the mongoose in 1883 marked the arrival of yet another enemy of the nene. The species’ darkest hour came in 1946. By this time the nene had been wiped out on all islands but Hawaii Island. In 1946 a tsunami in Hilo swept away thirty-one nene, nearly half of the entire population. By the end of that decade, fewer than three dozen birds survived in the wild on Hawaii Island, a handful more in captivity. The nene seemed destined to follow their cousins across the dark threshold of extinction.