What’s the COVID-19 situation in Hawaii right now?

Hawaiʻi was once a national example of success against COVID-19. Now the COVID-19 situation in Hawaii is worse than ever. What’s next for us?

concrete building under blue sky
Photo by Jeffrey Czum on Pexels.com

May – June: Hawaiʻiʽs days of success against COVID-19

During our last update in May, Hawaiʻi was experiencing a decrease in cases of COVID-19. Due to some of the most strict quarantine measures in the country, we appeared to have gained control over the spread of the virus. By slashing inbound flights, instituting a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the island, and closing beaches, parks, and most businesses, we brought community spread to nearly zero. We all planned business re-openings and looked forward to being able to socialize again with friends.

Farmers markets re-opened in June, where we saw only 265 cases over the course of the entire month.

Hawaiʻi Walks remains closed

In response to our low numbers of cases, government officials rapidly re-opened the economy of Hawaiʻi. Hawaiʻi Walks was allowed to open as well. In fact, being a business that operates in open-air environments with plenty of social distancing, we are a “lowest-risk” business. However, feeling that the re-opening was premature, we have remained closed. Additionally, we noticed some tourists requesting bookings seemed to be violating the state-mandated 14-day quarantine. We realized verifying tourist compliance was well outside the scope of our mission and business. For a company that is about joy, education, and meeting new people, these new circumstances were untenable. So we have remained closed, with our staff staying at home to do our part to flatten the curve.

At home in Palolo valley, missing our walks and talks with folks from all over the world.

COVID-19 surges again in Hawaiʻi

Sadly, the opening of the economy is proving to be premature. Like the rest of the United States, the COVID-19 situation in Hawaii worsened in July. In one month, we saw a large resurgence of COVID-19, with cases increasing by over 50% in just 30 days. We hit a month-high with 42 cases in mid-July. At the time, we thought was a possible peak. We were wrong.

Masks have since been made mandatory in public spaces

August – Cases COntinue to surge, but why?

While we saw 265 total new cases in the month of June, we had 354 cases on a single day in August (August 13), which is a full 1,690% increase from the total 30-days prior. Memories of early plans to market Hawaiʻi as “the safest place in the world” now felt laughable in their naivety. Since June, residents have had relatively few restrictions on movement or commerce, confusing messaging from government officials, while simultaneously likely experiencing quarantine fatigue. As such, in July, we saw massive outdoor events, the return of workers to offices from remote work, and a disregard for quarantine protocols by visitors. It cannot be surprising that by August, Hawaiʻi had the highest infection rate in the country.

Graph of new COVID-19 cases in Hawaii

Total Outbreak

Government officials repeatedly insisted the spread was under-control because of a robust COVID-19 tracking program with 400 activated contact-tracers. This may have distorted the public view toward the virus as a low-risk threat to their daily lives. However, an unannounced visit by state senators and Hawaii News Now to the Department of Health on August 8th found that, in actuality, there were only 15 contact-tracers. With over 100 cases assigned to each worker, these individuals were overwhelmed and unable to manage an acceptable level of virus tracking. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 situation in Hawaii continues to worsen with gigantic outbreaks continued at our local prison, the state’s largest emergency homeless shelter, and even the Honolulu City Hall.

So what now?

Now, we wait, socially distance, hold government officials accountable, and wash our hands. But most of all, we stay closed. If you had plans to visit Hawaiʻi, we can only say that now is probably not the right time. Beaches, trails, and many businesses are closed, with more to follow. We are averaging 1-2 deaths a day. Local folks are hurting, and we cannot afford additional risk at this time.

However, we are not out of business. We are still accepting bookings for 2021 and are using this time to rebuild our website, build out our online shop and stay on top of new historical research to make sure we are at the top of our game for educating the public when we get back to work. Cases are spiking all over the world, not just Hawaiʻi. As such, we expect our economy to continue to be paralyzed until a vaccine is developed.

A red-billed leothrix photographed in early August 2020, prior to the closing of hiking trails on Oʻahu. Read more about our local birds and nature on our blog.

We expect our future to look entirely different than our past: Much like the rest of the world. We will keep everyone updated on our plans, as usual, right here. Stay safe.

THE INTRODUCED BIRDS OF OʻAHU

In the lowlands of Oʻahu you’ll find birds from Indonesia, Brazil, and Japan–but almost no birds from Hawaiʻi. Why are our local birds from everywhere but here? Learn about the birds you will encounter during the Hawaii Walks Waikiki Walking Tour and elsewhere around Oʻahu!

An introduced rose-ringed parakeet sits on a tree branch. Photo:  Maxx Rush on Unsplash. These birds are common during out Hawaii Walks Waikiki Walking Tour.

Ancient Hawaiʻi : A diverse and robust aviary

The first Polynesians likely arrived to Hawaiʻi around 1200 AD. These explorers likely arrived from Tahiti and The Marquesas Islands in two separate migration events. When these first settlers arrived, they encountered dozens of rare, endemic birds not found anywhere else on Earth. Due to the absence of other birds or predators that were common on continental lands these birds evolved into unique species. In fact, there were upwards of 70 different endemic land birds before the arrival of humans. However, now there is only one, the nēnē.

An endemic Hawaiian Goose, the nēnē, takes flight in Hosmer’s Grove, Maui. Photo: Hawai’i Walks

Why the native birds disappeared

Upon the arrival of humans, birds encountered this new predator for the first time. Land birds were slow, full of protein, and had little to no fear of humans. As a result, the first settlers consumed a large percentage of these birds as a source of meat. The large number of bird bones found in ancient Polynesian caves corroborate this finding. Sadly, after the arrival of humans they were never to be found anywhere again.

Artist depiction of a Moa-nalo, an ancient flightless bird that most likely went extinct in the late 1700’s. Photo: Apokryltaros at English Wikipedia

Non-human threats to Native birds

Not all birds died by the direct hands of humans. When the first humans arrived to Hawaiʻi, they brought with them rats, dogs, and pigs. These animals likely preyed on ground birds as well as forest birds. Because rats had the ability to climb trees and attack nests, they were particularly damaging to the bird population. As a result, many native birds had their eggs eaten by rats.

A rat sits on the ground. Rats most likely decimated the population of nesting ground birds by attacking their eggs. Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Humans also brought with them what would prove to be the most dangerous threat to native birds yet–the mosquito. Introduced in 1827, The Southern House Mosquito carried two deadly diseases, Avian Malaria and Avian Pox. Because Native Hawaiian birds had no exposure to other birds or mammalian species, they had no immunity to these diseases and native birds began a quick fall towards extinction. However, mosquitos cannot live in lower temperatures. As a result, birds in lowland Oʻahu quickly died out, while birds in higher elevations survived. This is the primary reason there are very few endemic and indigenous birds in Waikiki. These birds are usually found exclusively on the high-slopes of volcanoes like Mauna Kea on Big Island and Haleakalā on Maui.

An endemic ʻIʻiwi bird sits on a ʻOhia branch on the slopes of Haleakalā in Maui. These birds used to be found throughout the islands, but now live exclusively in high-altitude climates where mosquitos cannot live.

Climate change

While native birds can still be found in high-altitude locations throughout the Hawaiian Islands, climate change brings about a new threat. As global temperatures increase, this means the “mosquito line” will effectively shift higher since temperatures overall will increase allowing them to reach higher altitudes than ever before. Current models adjusted for climate change suggest that, because of the growing encroachment of mosquitos, the native Kiwikiu could experience extinction in just 25 years.

A native Kiwikiu, which has a population of just around 300 birds. Photo: The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

the introduction of new birds

As the native bird population has declined, the number of introduced species has greatly increased. The greatest contributor to this was most likely the Hui Manu (“Bird club”). This group of wealthy bird enthusiasts wanted to beautify the islands with colorful songbirds in the early 20th century. Since so many of the beautiful native birds had been killed off, these European settlers felt that there weren’t enough birds to beautify their garden. To fix this, they imported tens of thousands of birds, selected based on their looks and singing ability. Most of these birds further hastened the decline of native birds, as they out-competed native birds for food and eventually spread to overtake their forest habitats.

A drawing of four birds introduced by the Hui Manu. These birds are now wide-spread throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Can you identify these birds? They are common during our Hawaii Walks Waikiki Nature Walking Tour. Photo: Honolulu Magazine

Escaped parrots

In Kapiʻolani Park, it’s likely you will hear the distinctive squawk of the rose-ringed parakeet echoing high above you. These birds have drastically altered the landscape of the Hawaiian Islands in just a few years. The first of these birds escaped from a bed-and-breakfast in Kauai in the 60’s, with the population slowly increasing until a rapid exponential growth over the past decade. These birds have been decimating local crops, increasing the spread of Avian Malaria, and annoying residents with their loud calls. Currently, there is no removal plan in place in Hawaiʻi for this species, and as a result, many people have taken matters into their own hands and have admitted to shooting the birds at will. Even with this renegade bird-justice, however, the population continues to climb.

A Rose-Ringed Parakeet dangles upside down while consuming a fruit on a tree. See this bird during our Hawaii Walks Waikiki Nature Walking Tour. Photo by spandan pattanayak on Unsplash

Where are we now?

The trends we see of declining native bird populations coupled with increasing numbers of invasive birds will most likely continue. However, conservationists have been working hard to stabilize native bird populations. The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project has seen successes with their Kiwikiu conservation work, and they continue to develop additional measures of protection for the birds. The Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project is best known for its conservation efforts of the Akikiki. In addition, avian biologists from the ʻAlalā Project have successfully brought back the Native Hawaiian crow, the ʻAlalā, from the brink of extinction and are observing an increase in the population due to their conservation efforts.

The future of Birds in Hawaiʻi

The future of native birds in Hawaiʻi will depend on our action or inaction as stewards of the islands. Slowing climate change and supporting local bird conservation agencies will be important to ensure we do not lose any additional birds to extinction. See below for a list of bird conservation groups that could use financial donations or volunteers to keep their work going strong!

Our best suggestion to support native birds is to learn about their struggles, donate to their cause, and most importantly, don’t forget to look up! Every bird above you has a story….

A native ʻElepaio. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

HawaiinMonkSeal

Another Young Hawaiian Monk Seal Dies

“Makoa” RL36 is the 3rd pup death on O’ahu of 2019. Out of the 5 born this year, only two are still alive. How did we get here? Read on to learn about this endangered mammal and what is causing their decline.

Photo: NOAA

About the Hawaiian Monk Seal

The Native Hawaiian Monk seal is a rare, but ancient animal. It is thought to have migrated to Hawaiian waters some 10 million years ago, making its way from the Mediterranean through the Central American Seaway and into the Pacific. There were evolutionary changes along the way as well, with the original Mediterranean Monk Seal evolving into the Caribbean Monk Seal upon arrival in the Western Atlantic. Once the seals passed through the Central American Seaway and into the Pacific, the Hawaiian Monk Seal evolved into its own, separate species, which exists to this day.

The ancestors of this seal represents great loss. Only 400 Mediterranean Monk Seals survive today, and the Caribbean Monk Seal is officially extinct. The last sighting of one was in 1961. Amazingly, in a span of just 100 years, from 1800-1900, a robust Caribbean Monk Seal population of over 300,000 seals was totally decimated by European colonization, as people began hunting them for food, and in pursuit of their blubber to create oil (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 2012). Unfortunately, these seals did not have an evolutionary fear of humans, and since they spend 1/3 of their lives sleeping on the beach, they made for an easy target for hunters. With the rapid pace of industrialization and consumerism, sadly their fate was quickly sealed.

Why are the Seals Dying?

Unfortunately, the combination of being slow moving on land, shore-dwelling, protein-rich with valuable blubber has made the Native Hawaiian Monk Seal face similar struggles to is cousins to the West. The seals were ruthlessly hunted upon the arrival of humans to the archipelago, and today have a population of only 1400–making it one of the most critically endangered animals in the world. 1100 of these seals inhabit the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, with about 300 on the main Hawaiian islands. There are around 45 “O’ahu” seals that we track and monitor, but that number can vary widely given any particular time of year.

The struggles for the Monk Seals no longer come from hunting. As an officially endangered animal, they are federally protected. In fact one Hawai’i man was recently sent to jail for four years for getting drunk and punching a pregnant monk seal. Although there are upwards of 13 unsolved monk seal murders (I recommend this brilliant article by Jon Mooallem to learn more about that), most monk seal deaths do not occur directly by human hands, but from the industries and effects of their actions. Read on to learn about the 3 largest threats to the Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Marine Debris Entanglement

Industrial fishing nets, ropes and baskets are the most commonly found large debris in Hawaiian waters. Industrial fishing nets, when they become broken or stuck, are often cut and thrown overboard into the ocean when they are no longer useful. These debris inevitably find their way to shore, where they become small ecosystems for fish and wildlife. often monk seals will explore these ghost nets for food, becoming entangled and eventually drowning (seals can only hold their breath for up to 20 minutes).

Kuokala (RK88), featured in the above video playing with a stick, was found drowned in a small, local fisherman’s gill net in late summer, 2019. Video by Melody Bentz

Competition For Space and food

Picture of a disappearing atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 10 Monks seals crowd the tiny strip of sand following hurricane Walaka
11 seals crowd onto a tiny strip of sand in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Following 2018’s Hurricane Walaka, this island temporarily disappeared and is likely to be completely submerged within the decade. Seals rest up to 10 hours a day, so dry land is important to their survival. Photo: Dan Link/US Fish and Wildlife Service

While the monk seal population is growing on the main Hawaiian islands, the population on the Northwestern islands is shrinking. The atolls of the northwest archipelago are eroding and disappearing every year due to climate change. Food stocks have decreased. Increasing numbers of conflicts between seals for resources or mates have been documented, suggesting that long-term habitation in the region for seals is likely untenable. Re-location efforts to move seals from the NW islands continues to be discussed, but it appears many seals accomplish the migration naturally as a response to growing conflict and resource depletion.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that replicates in the guts of cats. On O’ahu alone, there are upwards of 400,000 feral cats–along with domesticated cats that owners allow outside–that often defecate outdoors, spreading the parasite into ground water, streams, and eventually the oceans. The parasite then accumulates near the shore, where many monk seals choose to hunt. Monk seals have no natural protection against toxoplasmosis, and once contracted, death is largely certain. In 2018, we lost 3 seals on O’ahu to toxoplasmosis. Efforts to reduce feral cat populations or to make feeding feral cats illegal is often met with extreme protests, so the cat population continues to grow while these rare animals slink towards extinction.

A seal rests on a beach. Photo: u_y8pa5mf5 from Pixabay

What happened to Makoa (RL36)?

Makoa was born on Mother’s Day, 2019 to Honey Girl (read about her amazing story here), one of the oldest documented seals in the wild and mother to 12 pups. Unfortunately, as of today, only two of those pups are still alive following the death of Makoa. NOAA reports the initial assessment of how the pup died are inconclusive. NOAA is famously protective of any information that goes out about the seals, so you can expect them to remain tight-lipped until final diagnostics are in place. Unfortunately, sometimes they can never determine the cause of death. Along with the aforementioned threats to the seals, things like infections, trauma from boats, other seals, or even waves can all contribute to high mortality rates.

It has truly been a sad year for the monk seals, as so much effort and work has been put into conserving these animals. We can only hope for a better year next year, with more serious measures put in place to slow climate change, address the spread of toxopasmosis, and limit the amount of fishing gear in the ocean.

A hui hou, Makoa.

PIcture of a young Hawaiian Monk Seal
Makoa playing on his birth beach in summer, 2019. He would go on to pass away at just 6 months old. Photo: Photo: Hawaii Marine Animal Response