It started with the birds. My first day in Hawai’i, I saw eleven species of birds that I had never seen before, most of them at the feeder in my friend’s backyard. Only one of them, the Pacific golden-plover (Pluvialis fulva), was not introduced to the islands by man. While this caused a dilemma for my life list, it also got me thinking about larger ethical and philosophical issues.

Nēnē : one of the few endemic species I saw. But they are also endangered.

Unfortunately, what was true for birds was true for everything. Many of the striking plants I saw in the forests were introduced by man. Even some of the fish I saw were introduced. And when I thought I’d seen an endemic hammerhead worm? It turned out to be Bipalium kewense which comes from Southeast Asia. In nearly every case, the introduction of a new species means things just got harder for the species native to Hawai’i.

Bipalium kewense (I think). Not native to Hawai’i!

A great example of the many bad ideas that has brought Hawai’i to this point is the introduction of the mongoose. Sugar cane farmers brought them to the islands, hoping they would deal with the rat population. They never did. The mongoose hunts during the day; rats come out at night. But the mongoose still thrived, eating the eggs of native birds and sea-turtles, adding to the difficulties these species already faced.

While this ecological mess stems from people making uninformed choices, reading Sarah Vowell’s book Unfamiliar Fishes helped me gain insight and even some sympathy for the people who made these mistakes.

When the missionaries sailed for Hawai’i, they were leaving behind their New England homes for the unknown, probably for the rest of their lives. Imagine a world without phones or internet, where sending a letter takes months or even years. Imagine leaving friends, family, everything you know and love, behind forever. Wouldn’t you be tempted to bring along a few seeds to grow your favorite flower or to bring your pet bird along for company?

A rattlepod (Croalaria) in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. You guessed it. Not native!

And it wasn’t just the whites. The Polynesians who first settled the islands brought taro, coconuts, and fish with them, not knowing what they would find at the end of their voyage. And even the natives who had long inhabited the islands when the whites first arrived made human choices, trading away their precious sandalwood trees for wealth and power.

Banana trees were brought to the islands by the Polynesian settlers. So, also not native to Hawai’i.

It’s easy to look back from where we are today and judge the choices others have made, because we now know the horrible consequences of those choices. I’d like to think we’ve learned something from all this, and Hawai’i’s strict rules about what you can and cannot bring to the islands show that we have.

Or will there come a day when historians, talking about pioneers who colonized a distant planet, shake their head because the carrots the settlers took with them pushed a native flower to the brink of extinction?

It’s hard to say, but I imagine this could happen. After all, we’re only human.

What do you think?

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