The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Hawaii ‘the extinction capital of the world’? Exhibit A: The alala bird.

Hawaii’s small land mass, long history of extreme isolation and rapid pace of development have left its many indigenous species — including the alala — vulnerable to predators and diseases. (David Ledig/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For centuries, a species of crow possessed of a large bill, a piercing stare and a raucous caw was revered by Hawaiians as a "family god" that would guide spirits of the dead into the afterlife.

But modernity has been brutal to the alala, and none of them have been spotted in the wild since 2002. The only alala known to exist are at breeding centers on Maui and here on the Big Island.

Hawaiians are set on bringing the bird back: A dozen captive-bred juveniles will be released into the wild in the fall. But the effort will run up against existential dangers that have led some conservationists to dub Hawaii “the extinction capital of the world.” Others say they fear that Hawaii is in biological free fall, with extinction of many species on an unstoppable march.

“Hawaii is the sounding board for the mainland: Our problems are becoming its problems,” said Gregory Koob, ecological recovery chief in Hawaii for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re just a concentrated laboratory. When something goes bad here, it goes bad big-time.”

Across the Hawaiian island chain, nonnative species have been rapaciously destroying native plants and birds: Feral cattle and pigs have trampled large patches of forest habitat; other nonnative species such as rats and the mongoose devour birds and bird eggs. So do the Hawaiian hawk and packs of feral cats and dogs that prowl the forest. Mosquitoes spread avian malaria.

Native species in Hawaii began to disappear long ago when the Polynesians and then Westerners, including missionaries, began arriving, bringing nonnative plants and animals. The only proof that certain native species existed comes when their bones are found in lava flows. Of six species of crows native to Hawaii, only the alala is left.

Of 1,225 endangered species of animals and plants listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 481 are from Hawaii. The service is debating whether to add another 49 species from the islands, including the band-rumped storm petrel, the orangeblack Hawaiian damselfly and six kinds of yellow-faced bees.

The islands’ small land mass, their long history of extreme isolation and the recent rapid pace of development have left its many indigenous species vulnerable to predators and diseases for which they never developed defenses.

References to the alala appear in journals from the 1778 expedition of Capt. James Cook, according to a 2006 book on the bird and its travails by Mark Jerome Walters. It was plentiful in forests at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet, and its black feathers adorned the robes of Hawaiian royalty.

The number of alala began decreasing by the late 19th century as farming and cattle ranching expanded in the islands. By the late 1970s, it was thought that no more than 150 survived, sparking efforts that so far have failed to restore the species to health.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which develops the “red list” of endangered species worldwide, will hold its quadrennial convention on Oahu in September. Conservationists involved in attempting to save the alala and other species hope the gathering will bring public attention to the problems of Hawaii.

While the overall situation in Hawaii seems dire, there have been successes. The nene goose, the state bird, was rescued from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and careful releases. Its numbers had dwindled to fewer than 100, but in 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that upward of 2,000 could be found on Oahu, the island with the most development, and that smaller but growing populations live on other islands.

The effort to save the alala, through a similar breeding and release plan in the 1990s, ended with 21 of the young birds getting eaten by hawks, feral cats and dogs, and other predators. Only six survived; they were quickly trapped and brought back to the breeding center.

“It was just becoming a blood bath,” said Paul Banko, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, whose involvement in the save-the-alala campaign dates back more than three decades.

(In the 1970s, Banko’s father, Winston Banko, was one of the first biologists to issue an alert for the alala. When Paul Banko was in high school, he kept two sickly specimens at his home in hopes of nursing them back to health. In 1980, father and son published a scientific paper on the alala’s bleak outlook.)

Officials say the effort to re­introduce the alala will go better this time. The release area — a rain forest near a national park — is being prepared more carefully. The acreage has been fenced and cleared of predators. The site is at an elevation — 5,200 feet — where malaria-bearing mosquitoes have not been found.

Each bird will have a tiny GPS device attached to a wing so its movements can be tracked to pick up signs of trouble.

Before the release, set for September, an effort will be made to teach the juveniles to recognize enemies, possibly by bringing them into contact with a mature bird of a different species that has experience in the wild. Pictures of predators will be shown to the alala and the mature bird, and, it is hoped, the alala will learn from the fearful reaction of the mature bird.

Even with such steps, officials are cautious, and it may be years before the effort is deemed a success.

“There will be bumps along the way, but there will be successes as well,” said Bryce Masuda, who runs the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island and a similar center on Maui. More than 100 alala have been bred in captivity.

The alala reintroduction is not cheap. The first year’s work is slated to cost $800,000, and subsequent years will require $400,000 to $500,000 each. Funds come from San Diego Zoo Global and state and federal agencies.

Releasing the birds in the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve may help the forest recover some of the ground-level vegetation that once provided protection and sustenance for the alala but has been destroyed by foraging feral cattle and pigs. Scientists have determined that seeds left in bird excrement are unusually helpful in reforestation.

“We hope the alala poop seeds everywhere,” Masuda said.

Masuda is overseeing efforts with several endangered species, including the small Kauai thrush, the Maui parrotbill and the finch-billed honeycreeper. But the alala is clearly the first among equals thanks to its spiritual significance and its famed loud call that signaled intruders.

“We want to return a voice to the forest that had been taken away,” said Iwikaui’kqua Joaquin, outreach coordinator for Kamehameha Schools, which is involved in bird conservation and the alala effort. “In Hawaii, the forest is family.”