An amazing story of rescue: 50 years and counting

Posted on March 16th, 2016 by Aloha

When visiting Maui’s Haleakala summit to catch a breathtaking sunrise, you will almost always be able to spot the State Bird: the nene goose. Image from pinterest.com.

Miraculously, they didn’t — thanks to a few determined individuals. Halfway around the globe, British naturalist Sir Peter Scott had heard of the Hawaiian goose’s plight. Scott had a passion for studying and breeding rare waterfowl at his wetland preserve in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, and when a colleague of his named Charles Schwartz took a job managing game birds in Hawaii, Scott urged him to look after the nene. Schwartz did: in 1949 he helped establish a breeding program at Pohakuloa on the Big Island, with a mix of wild and captive birds.

The Hawaii–England connection proved fertile. Scott sent specialists to train the new nene caretakers, and Pohakuloa returned the favor by sending Scott a breeding pair of nene. Or so they thought until both geese, upon arrival at Slimbridge, laid eggs. A gander soon followed, and by 1951 the three geese—named Kamehameha, Emma, and Kaiulani for Hawaiian royalty — were nesting. Kamehameha proved himself highly valuable by producing 49 descendants over 17 years.

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Cathleen Bailey and Ho’okahi Alves, of Endangered Wildlife Management at Haleakala National Park, hold a young Nene bird before tagging her. Image by Elyse Butler.

After 10 years both the Pohakuloa and Slimbridge breeding programs were stable enough to attempt releasing nene back into the wild. Biologists chose four sites on Hawaii Island and one on Maui –Haleakala National Park — which is how, on that June morning in 1962, 35 British-born birds found themselves in boxes carried by Carl Eldridge and his fellow scouts.

For the nene, recovering their native turf was a historic reversal of fortune. But the threats of the past hadn’t gone away. “Right off, a mongoose killed two birds,” remembers Eddie Andrade, an outdoorsman who was hired to shepherd Haleakala’s flock in 1968.

For 30 years, Andrade supervised the release of hundreds of captive birds into the crater and guarded their wild offspring. “I used to spend more time in the crater than at home,” he says. “I would climb the highest puu [hill] and look around for nene. I’d track them miles away from Paliku.” He retired in 1997, but his voice still softens when he talks about nene goslings, as if referring to his own offspring. “The little babies have a hard time following their mother and father through the tall grass,” he says. “If they don’t keep up, they’re gone.”

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