Once at a critically endangered level, the majestic Hawaiian nene goose is on the up and up again. This state bird of Hawaii is about 25 inches in length and has partially webbed feet, head, and a bill that are black. They make a sort of “nay-nay” when they call, thus earning them the name Nēnē. In 1951, there were only 30 nene left. But, in 1962, Troop 56 came to the rescue.
Fossil records reveal that nene used to inhabit all of the Hawaiian islands, with more abundance on the Big Island. Then, Captain James Cook arrived in 1778. Scientists gather that the Maui population became extinct before 1890. The decline in numbers was hastened from 1850 to 1900 due to aggressive hunting of the birds and collecting of their eggs.
Their decline continued further with the introduction of foreign animals and loss of habitat. New animals such as rats, dogs, cats, mongooses, and pigs quickly became predators. Poor available nutrition in their lessened habitats led to decreases productivity.
In the middle of Haleakala National Park in the summer of 1962, a Boy Scout Troop prepared to make the arduous ten-mile, sandy descent into a volcanic crater. But, this was no ordinary outdoor adventure for this group. This time, wildlife biologists and pack mules accompanied them. The pack each Scout carried on his back was a cardboard box with cutout holes. Each box held a critically endangered nene goose.
Only one place in Haleakala gets substantial rainfall, Paliku. That was the Scouts’ destination. Despite being June, harsh winds troubled the ten-thousand-foot summit. So, wearing hats and jackets, they began their trek.
“I carried three birds,” remembers Carl Eldridge, who was then 17 years old. An athletic boy, he was able to hike the trail numerous time and help other Scouts with their nene. “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.”
One of the current park rangers at Haleakala National Park remembers his brother being one of these courageous Scouts. The nene in his brother’s box would stick his bill out of one of the holes in the cardboard. When the road would get bumpy or when the goose presumably got hungry, he would poke the boy with his bill. But, he powered through and finished the hike.
When all of the Scouts finally arrived at Paliku, they opened their boxes. For the first time in seventy years, nene stepped their partially webbed feet onto Maui soil.
Nene was classified as an endangered species in 1967 under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The nene recovery plan published in 1983 with another plan approved in 2004. It describes the necessary elements to re-establishing nene to self-sustaining levels throughout the islands. These elements are to reduce the fatality rate in the wild, maintain the release of captive-bred birds, continue predator control and resume research to protect and improve nene habitat where they can support their communities naturally.
Various public and private organizations have been actively running and supporting breeding programs to restore nene in the wild. The State of Hawai‘i, the Fish and Wildlife Refuge, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and a Safe Harbor Agreement worked together to reintroduced nēnē across the islands.
Today, hundreds of captive-bred nene have found a new home in the wild, but it was not an easy journey. The charismatic bird is so regularly seen at the Haleakala National Park in Maui that park staff have trouble persuading visitors that nene are endangered. “This is one of the best success stories,” Cathleen Bailey says in an article from Hawaiian Airlines. “Not just for conservation, but culturally. It’s what everybody hopes for: to have an endangered species thrive.”
Today, approximately 2,000 nene exist in the wild today with 416 on Maui, 165 on Moloka‘i, 1,000 on Kaua‘i, and 480 on the island of Hawai‘i.
The brave Scouts of Troop 56 took essential steps towards saving the nene. Now, the nene aren’t just surviving, they are thriving.
Cover photo by Elysa Butler
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Check out Great Basin National Park if you are interested in another national park.