Mongoose have invaded the Hawaiian island Kauai, much to the dismay of scientists and birdlovers. The invasive species has no natural predators and Keren Gundersen, project coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, tells host Bruce Gellerman that mongooses are putting the island’s native birds at risk.
GELLERMAN: In Rudyard Kipling's classic, "The Jungle Book," he tells the story of
a mongoose in India named Rikki Tikki Tavi. The mongoose protects his human friends from murderous cobras. Well, Kipling's tale about a mongoose in India had a happy ending, but in Hawaii, it's a different story.
Keren Gundersen is the Project Coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee. Keren, welcome to Living on Earth.
GUNDERSEN: Thank you for having me!
GELLERMAN: You know, everything I know about mongooses is from Rudyard Kipling, you know, from his “Jungle Book” and writing about Riki Tikki Tavi. They’re really fierce fighters, they’ve remarkably fast reflexes, and they look a lot like a weasel.
GUNDERSEN: And the interesting thing though, that you may not know is that there are 33 species of mongoose.
GELLERMAN: Well, his came from India. Where did yours come from?
GUNDERSEN: Well, it is the small Indian mongoose.
GELLERMAN: How did they get to Hawaii?
GUNDERSEN: They, actually- it’s a funny story. So back in the 1800s, sugar cane was growing as a major agricultural crop here, and also in Jamaica. And one of the major pests to this growing agricultural crop was rats. So, someone in Jamaica, the sugar cane industry, decided that it would be a great idea to introduce mongoose to battle these rats and take care of the problem.
But, meanwhile, after they were introduced to Jamaica, they were then introduced to Kauai from Jamaica for the same, exactly the same, reasons. Apparently somebody didn’t do their homework really great because they didn’t turn out to be that effective.
And this is why it didn’t work: rats are nocturnal and mongoose are diurnals, meaning they’re active during the day. But, the mongoose quickly found another prey item and that was our native ground nesting birds.
GELLERMAN: So, they came over a hundred years ago to Hawaii- I guess they were on Oahu, they were on Molokai then Maui. How long have you had them on Kauai?
GUNDERSEN: I can confirm that we’ve had them on Kauai since May 23rd, [Laughs] when we had a capture. But we actually had a sighting way as far back as 1968. So, we really have no idea of what the population base is here, but they are very elusive, and over 44 years of sporadic trapping, we’ve never been able to capture one until May.
GELLERMAN: So, is the mongoose a good swimmer? Could they have swum over from one of these other islands?
GUNDERSEN: No, that’s too far. They can swim, but they don’t choose to really do that if they can help it. But they probably came most likely, as stowaways, on cargo.
GELLERMAN: Well, I was looking at some statistics; it says that since the arrival of the Europeans to the Hawaiian Islands, 71 out of 113 endemic species that existed at the time of the first human colonization, they’re gone. And of the remaining 42, 32 are federally listed as endangered, and ten of those have not been seen for 40 years!
GUNDERSEN: Yeah, I know. That is such a sad story and Hawaii is often referred to as the extinction capital of the world. We are having a huge loss in biodiversity and one of those reason is the introduction of mongoose.
GELLERMAN: I’m not sure if this is a really good idea or a really really bad idea, but since you’ve got a predator there, why don’t you get a predator for the predator? Why don’t you get something that preys on the mongoose?
GUNDERSEN: Hawaii is a very finely balanced ecosystem. You know the native flora and fauna that developed here over millions of years did so in isolation. And so the native species are what we call passive; our onions have no scents and our raspberries have no thorns, because they didn’t have a predator. So anytime you introduce a predator to a passive ecosystem, it can wreak havoc in all kinds of ways to unintentional consequences.
GELLERMAN: Well, how have Oahu and Maui, how have they dealt with the mongoose problem?
GUNDERSEN: Well, the only way they can deal with it is actually to ramp up predator control in high-value areas like bird refuges, sanctuaries, that sort of thing, where they can put up predator-proof fences to prevent mongoose from going in and can, you know, active trapping in the areas.
GELLERMAN: Sounds expensive!
GUNDERSEN: Very expensive. But, you know, a big issue is how this is gonna continue to be funded. We are in a recession still, and funding is very tight in all areas of conservation in Hawaii, so I think we’re going to have to look at creative ways to fund this project as we move forward. You know, we’re just hanging onto preserving; what we have here is very unique in Hawaii and Kauai.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS]
GELLERMAN: Ms. Gundersen, what is that bird sound I hear behind you?
GUNDERSEN: (Laughs.) I’m not sure! It could be a Mynah bird, it’s probably… it’s not a native—whatever you’re hearing is not a native bird.
GELLERMAN: Oh really, how do you know that?
GUNDERSEN: Because the native birds have had to move to very high elevation to escape avian malaria. So you only really find our native forest birds very high up.
GELLERMAN: Boy, Hawaii does have a lot of problems with its birds!
GUNDERSEN: Yeah we do, you know, we’ll call them challenges. Oh, that was a Mynah bird right there. You know, we are battling invasive species on every front: you know, whether it’s mongoose or a little fire ant or, you know, watershed-destroying weeds. You know, it’s an ongoing battle.
GELLERMAN: Oh, Ms. Gundersen, thank you so very much.
GUNDERSEN: Oh you’re welcome, I’m really happy to chat with you today.
GELLERMAN: Sounds great, sounds beautiful, I bet it smells terrific right where you are today actually.
GUNDERSEN: We are tucked up right next to the mountains and it is unbelievably gorgeous. It’s paradise!
GELLERMAN: Except for the mongoose.
GUNDERSEN: Even with the mongoose… you can't take the paradise out of Hawaii!
GELLERMAN: Keren Gundersen is Project Coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee.
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