Kawelo, Kapua

Mea Nīnauele: Melehina Groves at the Army Natural Resource Office


Alien species know no boundaries!
Talking Story with Kapua Kawelo

Photo: Courtesy of O‘ahu Army Natural Resource Program
Aerial view of Mākua Valley.

Kapua Kawelo on the job.

Photos: Courtesy of Kapua Kawelo
Part of Kapua's work involves tracking the progress of native species.

The danger of introduced species - weeds - lies in their ability to alter native habitats and compete with native plants for nutrients and water.  Over the last year, over 1,550 people hours have been spent controlling weeds over 184 acres in Mākua Military Reservation alone. 

Feral pigs and goats have the ability to destroy native habitats by feeding on native plants and spreading weed seeds. Pig wallows can become mosquito breeding grounds and mosquitoes spread disease to native forest birds.  Introduced predators such as rats, feral cats, and Indian mosquitoes consume native birds, plants, and snails. They also prey on the eggs of native birds and seeds of native plants.

"Conservation biology in Hawai‘i is mainly all about managing threat; managing alien species in a native ecosystem.  The reason alien species are so threatening is because Hawai‘i has such a unique ma uka environment.  We’re an isolated island... so when species did get here, they found a niche and expanded into it, and there wasn’t a lot of competition.  Native plants are that much more susceptible, because they’ve adapted to this unique environment that is Hawai‘i. 

That’s why they need our help! That’s mainly what we do is help to stem the tide of alien species’ invasion: give the native plants room, fence areas to keep pigs from trampling native habitats and spreading alien species, that sort of thing..."

M: So, Kapua could you introduce yourself and tell us where you’re from?

K: Sure, my full name is Kapuaonaona Kawelo and my immediate family lived in Kailua. I grew up in Kailua, but my extended family, my ‘ohana, are all from Kahalu‘u. They’re originally from Ka‘alaea area on O‘ahu. That’s where I currently reside, I have a house in Kahalu‘u valley.

M: What is your personal mission here? What keeps you working so hard?

K: I think as a Hawaiian you have a natural connection to your place, and for me, it’s really strong. For me, the ma uka area is where I feel the strongest connection, because it’s what our ancestors hiked in, it’s the places our ancestors used to collect what they needed to survive. It’s just really important to me that every possible type of our ma uka areas, every type of ecosystem, gets protected for the long run so my keiki can see it and their keiki can see it, and we don’t lose it because that’s our heritage. That’s how I feel about the whole thing.

I work with wonderful people, though, and there are actually a lot of other people of Hawaiian ancestry who work with our program, which I’m really proud about. When I first started, I was one of maybe two Hawaiian biologists working in conservation, and that was ten years ago. Now we have people on our staff - six out of 20 - that are Native Hawaiian. 

I see a lot of other Native Hawaiians in the conservation community and, not that everybody else doesn’t also have a tie to Hawai‘i’s environment, but I think there’s just a really strong bond between Hawaiians and the ma uka areas.  That’s why you guys come out and work with us, with your hālau, and that’s why it’s such an important group for us to keep going out with.  

M: What’s the name of the organization that you work for?

K: OK, I’m a biologist, a government employee, working for the Army Natural Resource Program on O‘ahu. It falls under the U.S. Army Garrison, and there’s a directorate of public works under the garrison that deals with all of the installation/maintenance stuff, like construction projects and engineering and that kind of thing. So we are under the department of Public Works, Environmental Division, Natural Resource Section. 

M: How long have you been working with this department?

K: We just had our ten year anniversary! The field program for the Army Natural Resource Program started in 1995. Myself and another person, Vince Costello, we were the first two field people hired. August 1995, so it’s been ten years.

M: How did this program come about? 

K: Well, the Army as a federal agency has a requirement under the Endangered Species Act to protect any federally listed endangered or threatened plants and animals on their training areas and to make sure that they don’t negatively impact them. That’s pretty much what we do for them.

M: So that’s for our whole island, then?

K: [laughing] Right!

M: How did you get involved in this field?

K: In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, I spent a lot of time with my ‘ohana and with a Hawaiian community group, Hui Kūkākūkā, which was led by Likeke Paglinawan. We went on all kinds of great trips and helped restore archaeological sites and hiked around and looked for native plants, so I think my interests in this aspect of Hawai‘i began in my childhood days. Then, I went on to study science at the University of California, Davis. I was going to go on to study medicine, because I didn’t know there was such a thing as conservation biology, I just didn’t know that the career existed. 

So I declared the major of botany just because I knew I was interested in it, with the intention of going on to med school.  Then I did an internship with the Nature Conservancy after my sophomore year in college, and that totally opened my eyes to the possibilities, career-wise, of doing this for a living.  So I did that and just kind of kept on the conservation track until I graduated with a B.S. in Botany.

M: And your whole family is involved, right? Do you work with your husband?

K: Yeah [laughing]. Jobie started with the program around the same time that I did so we sort of have been involved from the beginning.  It’s been great. It’s fun.

M: I heard sometimes you even pack your kids?

K: [laughing] Yeah! We haven’t got them killing weeds yet, but eventually! It’s great. My sister also does this kind of work, but on the ma kai end.

M: So you have the uka-kai relationship all set then!

K: Right!

M: What is your section’s main focus in this program? 

K: Our main objective is to adhere to our requirements outlined in the Endangered Species Act. For Mākua, at least, our goal is to stabilize - which means to bring back from the brink of extinction - 27 endangered plants and one tree snail, the kāhuli. So, we work at maintaining a minimum number of populations with a minimum number of individuals in each of those, which requires controlling the threat - whether it’s alien plants or pigs and goats, those kinds of threats - to collecting from those plants and propagating those in a greenhouse and then out-planting them. We also deal with all kinds of other threats on site, sort of trying to help with the "competition" aspect that native species face.

M: How does Hawai‘i compare to the continent as far as endangered species go?

K: For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when they put things on the Endangered Species list, those things can be either ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened.’ ‘Endangered’ species are generally much more rare than species that are threatened. A lot of species on the mainland have thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of individuals.

 In Hawai‘i, we’re working with species that have more like ten individuals - or hundreds if we’re lucky.  So they’re really, really rare taxa. 

M: What are some of the plants you work with?

K: We work with all native plants. We work with a number of endangered plants. A lot of them are not necessarily culturally that significant, at least as far as we know because they’re rare. But the native ecosystems that they live in and are a part of are significant, and so our work doesn’t just involve bringing back those particular plants; our work involves restoring the native ecosystem as a whole.

A lot of the forest we work with in the Wai‘anae mountains has a palapalai under-story and an over-story of ‘ōhi‘a and a lot of maile growing up into the canopy.  By virtue of needing to protect the ecosystem we protect a lot of other culturally significant species. 

We also work with a group of plants called the "hāhā," the cyanias or the lobelias, and those plants are particularly rare because they’ve lost their pollinators in a lot of cases.  The Native Hawaiian honeycreepers have the long, curved bills that fit into the flowers of the lobelieas, and since the honeycreepers are extinct, or extremely rare, so are the plants that they pollinated.  That group as a whole has become very rare, so a lot of the plants we work with are the hāhā.

M: Do you ever see any native birds?

K: Yeah, we have four or five different kinds of native birds, and that’s not even including sea birds or anything. We work with pū‘eo; this year we found two pū‘eo nests in Mākua so we did some rat-baiting around them. The little nestlings just sit on the ground! They’re so cute, they’re little fluffballs!

M: Wow, that’s so vulnerable!

K: Yeah, very vulnerable to cats and all kinds of predators.  We also work a lot with O‘ahu ‘elepaio which is an endangered species since its population is really rare; it’s diminished significantly. So we do a lot of predator control...mainly rats are the biggest threat to nesting ‘elepaio. We go out in the nesting season and put out rat-bait around the nest and snap traps baited with peanut butter to get as many rats are we can to give the ‘elepaio a better chance of surviving. 

We have a couple populations of ‘i‘iwi, one in Ka‘ala and one in Schofield East Range. But they’re really rare - we’re hoping that the birds that remain are somehow immune to the bird diseases that the ‘i‘iwi are so susceptible to. ‘Amakihi and ‘apapane are around, too.

M: What areas on the island are you folks responsible for?

K: It’s about 20% of O‘ahu, all the lands that the military leases or uses. So Mākua military reservation is both Mākua and Kahanahāiki valleys on the westside, that’s about 4,000 acres. Then Schofield Barracks West Range is Hale‘au‘au and Mohiākea gulches and goes up to Mt. Ka‘ala. Also a portion of Schofield is in the Ko‘olau’s; it’s a long skinny strip that goes all the way up to the summit. So in the Ko‘olau’s the army mostly leases the land from Kamehameha Schools - the land from South Kaukonahua north up to Pūpūkea. Then in the last five years, the Army bought a portion of the northern tip of Kahuku area from the Campbell Estate and trains up in that area. Then we have Dillingham military reservation which is really small, kind of near Keālia trail out Mokulē‘ia side.

M: How many people are there in your section that are responsible for all this land?

K: There’s 20 of us, which is a lot compared to what other land management agencies have on O‘ahu; the State of Hawai‘i has about three people for way more land than this. So we get a lot done, but there’s always a lot more to do!

M: What’s a typical day like for you if you’re going out in the field?

K: Well, usually the projects that we work on vary a lot. We usually go to an area, and in any one area there’s a number of different tasks we need to do, anywhere from checking a fence line to make sure no pigs have gotten in, to doing weed control, killing strawberry guava trees to give the native trees more space, light, nutrients and water. Or we’re putting out rat bait around fruiting endangered plants or around O‘ahu ‘elepaio. Sometimes it’s going and just collecting fruit, monitoring a population to make sure that there isn’t anything threatening it. A variety of things, really...some days we’ll just be doing one thing, like weed control. 

Sometimes we’ll just go out for the whole day to do weed control, because everything requires its own set of gear. Where we can, we use helicopters to bring up things like rat bait so we don’t have to carry it all up.  But a lot of it is carried up in packs, say, a back pack sprayer for herbicide application, for grass control, a lot of it is real physical with a lot of hiking. Usually it takes us 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes to drive to the places where we start hiking, and then we hike for up to an hour in some places, do our work, then hike back, and then drive back.  So we work four 10-hour days, which helps with the time factor. 

M: How many miles is the most you’ll hike in one day?

K: It depends what and where the project it. If we’re going to do a rare plant survey, then we’re gonna walk far; farther than we do when we’re just walking to a site and stopping and just working at that site. I don’t know...in a day trip, you could hike up to...we usually don’t hike any more than...five miles, one way, in a day. 

M: [laughing] That’s a lot! That’s 10 miles!

K: [laughing] And that’s a lot in a forested area. On mountain cliffs! It’s a pretty good hike. But most average days, it’s about three or four miles in a day.

M: What are some of the most challenging things you face?

K: Safety is a big challenge. We do a lot of things that are high-risk, like using helicopters to get to our work site. Helicopters are a great tool if they’re used right and in a safe manner. So we always have to keep safety in the forefront. We do repelling (off mountainsides), so we have to make sure everybody has really good training and that we refresh everybody’s skills periodically so you’re not sent out there and you haven’t done it for a long time, you know, ‘whoops, I forgot to tie that knot!’

Chainsaw use, herbicide use, there’s a lot of risk in our job. I think that’s one big challenge, just keeping ahead of accidents; we don’t want to have accidents, we want to make sure that safety is always first in everybody’s life.

Also, the enormity of the alien species threat. There’s always new ones; you just try to get a handle on the ones that are here and the ones that you know are here to stay. For instance, we know how to deal with weeds, we know how to deal with pigs, we know how to deal with goats. But we don’t have control techniques for slugs, and right now, because of research that’s been done, we know that alien slugs eat about 30-50% of the seedlings of rare taxa, rare native Hawaiian seedlings. So it is no wonder why they’re rare!

But now that we know the level of threat, hopefully we can take the research further in terms of developing threat-control techniques; so we hire somebody who’s gonna come on and try to develop slug control techniques, and somebody who’s helping us to work on the cannibal snail - the rosy wolf snail - euglandina rosea - the one that eats the kāhuli tree snail.  They were brought in as a biological control for the African snail. From an agricultural perspective, the African snail was eating all the crops, so they brought in the wolf snail, but it’s nocturnal and the African snail is diurnalSo the wolf snail didn’t prey on the African snail as much as they expected, but instead they went off into the mountains and started eating all of our kāhuli. That’s one of the threats that we don’t know how to control very well right now, so we’re working with a researcher at UH to try and develop more control techniques or learn more about the biology.

Just keeping ahead of the threat that we have - trying to meet the challenge of the threats we have - and trying to prevent new threats from coming in are huge challenges for Hawai‘i. Especially with the tourism industry the way that we have it, the potential is always going to be there for new things to come in, so the state’s gotta crack down on that prevention aspect.

M: There’ve been several articles in the paper lately about the coqui frog and beardgrass on the Windward side...are those things that you guys deal with, too?

K: Actually, the beardgrass population, I found that [laughing]! Just being out there a lot, going to other islands and seeing what the threats are over there, you know what the potential is. So if you come back here and see even one individual from those species, you think ‘We gotta kill it!’ So we share information with our colleagues on other islands and try to prevent problems from arising here that we know are preventable and potentially very detrimental to the native ecosystems we’re protecting. 

We work with a lot of partners, O‘ahu Invasive Species Committee, the Ko‘olau Mountains Watershed Partnership, the Nature Conservancy, the State of Hawai‘i; alien species know no boundaries. 

M: Have you seen any successes in certain species?

K: Yeah, you know, you can plant a bunch of an endangered plant, but we don’t really consider it a success until that plant starts doing it on its own. You can bolster numbers, but to get a plant into the right kind of habitat and control threats to the level enough to get the plants to produce keiki at that site on their own, and then for those keiki to go on to become mature and produce their keiki; for that cycle to start happening naturally is really the way we determine success. 

I think for four species out of the 28 there has been some level of success.  One really successful species is a grass. We expect them to be a little easier to grow, but we’ve seen improvement from the parent level - the plant we put in the ground - it produces keiki, and those keiki have produced keiki. We’ve seen that go two generations, so that’s really good. And the production of babies is at the level where the plant is sustaining itself in one of our populations. We’re really encouraged by that, but that species isn’t threatened by as many threats as some of the other ones, so those other ones will just take a little longer! [laughing] ‘Kāmanomano’ is the name of that grass.

M: What are some of your section’s greatest needs?

K: We need office space and office workers! [laughing]  Everybody who gets into this field wants to go in the field, they don’t want to be in the office! That’s our need ... somebody who’s a really good biologist who doesn’t mind spending some time in the office. Nah, but I think we can always use volunteers. Unfortunately on O‘ahu, a lot of the areas that we manage are really, really steep, so they can’t just be any old volunteers! They have to be hardy, in-shape, not afraid of heights volunteers! Hardcore!

M: Or if you’re afraid of heights, suck it up, because you’re already halfway up the mountain!

K: Exactly! So volunteers are always helpful. Our funding is pretty stable. So far, we do have 20 people so we’re the biggest program on O‘ahu, so we can’t complain in terms of funding. 

More people being aware of the issues that challenge conservation and helping to educate others who aren’t aware of is so important; I think the larger the body of Hawai‘i’s population that is aware of these issues is, the more progress we’ll make in preventing alien species from coming here and getting more funding from the legislature to do this type of work. If more people think it’s important, if the constituents think it’s important, then more of it will get funded.

M: How can people find out about these kind of issues?

K: Mālama Hawai‘i has a website and they post a lot of good opportunities for volunteer projects. They do ma uka and ma kai projects. The internet is a really good resource for that kid of stuff. Division of Forestry and Wildlife just started publishing a newsletter, I think they’re going to do it quarterly, but it was packed full of a whole lot of good articles. There was an article in there about the gall wasp, this new wasp that’s going to wipe out our wiliwili forests, potentially.

They also do a lot of invasive species projects and watershed issues-just go hiking!  Get an appreciation for it, start developing your tie, your bond, with the ma uka areas, because I think that’s the first major step.  If people never get out there, there’s not much common ground.

M: What are your thoughts on conservation challenges in Hawai‘i?

K: Conservation biology in Hawai‘i is mainly all about managing threat; managing alien species in a native ecosystem. The reason alien species are so threatening is because Hawai‘i has such a unique ma uka environment. We’re an isolated island... so the natural history of Hawai‘i is that we’re so isolated that the introductions came here via birds or floating on logs, that type of thing. Very, very infrequently were there successful colonization by plants and animals.  So when species did get here, they found a niche and expanded into it, and there wasn’t a lot of competition. 

So, the native plants and animals lost a lot of their ability to compete, for instance there weren’t any feral ungulates, there weren’t any goats or pigs or hoofed animals. On the mainland, where a lot of plants have thorns to protect themselves from hoofed animals, in Hawai‘i, all the plants and animals have lost that. They’re that much more susceptible, because they’ve adapted to this unique environment that is Hawai‘i. 

That’s why they need our help!  That’s mainly what we do is help to stem the tide of alien species’ invasion: give ‘em room, fence areas to keep pigs from trampling native habitats and spreading alien species, that sort of thing.

M: So evolution here has created native plants like the mint-less mint, right?

K: Yeah! Exactly! There’s a mint-less mint, because mint is a defense that plants have developed on the mainland to ward off herbivores. It’s distasteful to some animals, we like the taste, but distasteful to some grazing animals. In Hawai‘i, there were no grazing animals, so it lost...it was too expensive for the plant to continue making mint if it wasn’t something it needed to do. So, it put its resources into something else and lost that mint flavor. So we have the Native Hawaiian mint-less mint. [laughing] They look like mints but don’t taste like mint.

M: Do you have any favorite plants?

K: Favorite plant, that’s too hard! I have a new favorite plant every week! Every one I see, every time I see a plant in the forest, I think, "Oh, this is ONE of my favorites!" but I could never say that it’s my favorite. 

For me, one thing that really keeps me going is just learning new plants.  I’m a plant nerd! So the more I see new plants or the more new plants I find, the more excited I am about my work. The more new plants that we find as a group or the more new things you learn about the ma uka areas to help protect them, the more satisfied I feel. It’s really satisfying for me, feeling like I have a large role in protecting a fifth of the island of O‘ahu for future generations. Being able to be the one that helps in prioritizing, saying, "Well, which parts do we want to protect?" and how to do it, and trying to get funding to do it...it’s all really rewarding work. It’s really rewarding. "How do we save the forest?" [laughing]

Check out these links to learn more about our unique natural environment, conservation, and volunteer opportunities!

Mālama Hawai‘i
The Nature Conservancy
O‘ahu Invasive Species Committee