Tourism causes sacred ōhiʻa tree in Hawaii to become a threatened species

Tourists who visit the state of Hawaii will immediately notice a species of tree that features beautiful red flower blossoms growing throughout the rainforest on the Big Island. Unfortunately, those same tourists may be unwittingly responsible for the threat the ōhiʻa tree now faces.

There are millions of ōhiʻa trees growing on the Hawaiian island chain in the Pacific Ocean, and these trees not only benefit many other species, especially birds and insects, but plays a major role in Hawaiian culture and history.

The most notable role is that the flowers are used in leis worn by hula dancers in the traditional Hawaiian dance.

But since 2014, the hula schools have been forced to reduce their usage of the flowers or stop using them altogether because a deadly fungus is wiping the trees out. Thus far, more than two million of the trees have been killed by ROD, which stands for “rapid ʻōhiʻa death”.

Experts believe that tourists are helping the fungus spread via their shoes and clothing, and are asking them to make sure their shoes and clothes are clean before heading to new areas where the fungus could spread.

Sam Gon, senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii warns that loss of the tree would be “devastating” and is urging reform to travel practices in order to prevent the fungus from spreading.

“There is speculation that travelers between the islands are responsible for bringing this disease to Kauaʻi from Hawaii Island,” Gon said. “Either because they were uninformed or uncaring about the need to sanitize their gear. As ROD could have a devastating effect on our environment and economy, and we need to reform travel practices between the islands. It is clear that our current biosecurity is inadequate to deal with the influx of new pests and diseases.”

Botanical research specialist Clyde Imada of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu concurs, and further warned that the loss of the species would not only change the landscape of Hawaii, but would do great harm to birds, plants and insects that rely on it.

“The disappearance of these trees would have a major impact on Hawaii,” Imada said. “Recreationally, outdoor forest experiences in natural areas will be significantly altered. Birds, insects and plants will be direly affected. The ‘ōhi‘a forest experience can’t be re-created with substitute species.”

In other words, tourist need to think of future tourists who would also like to see the trees someday when they plan their own trip to the Big Island.

Hawaiian culture expert Manakō Tanaka says that people need to start thinking of the environment and how they can protect it because Hawaii stands to lose a major part of its identity if the tree becomes extinct.

“It would be heartbreaking to only be able to show pictures of the tree and its flowers to future generations,” Tanaka said. “Losing the ʻōhiʻa lehua would be like losing a reference encyclopedia into the past. There is a proverb in Hawaiian, ‘I aliʻi ka ‘āina, i kauā ke kanaka.’ It means, ‘The land is chief, and men are its stewards.’ Sometimes, though, I fear that we may be moving to a world where people think it is the other way around.”

There is only one Hawaii and the ōhiʻa trees do not grow everywhere. The five species that grow in Hawaii do not grow anywhere else in the world. So, it is imperative that we do everything we can to protect it. This tree rises from the lava after volcanic eruptions. The least we can do is show it respect by making sure our desire to see them does not kill them.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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