Though he inspired one of the world’s great drinking holidays, St. Patrick never actually drove the snakes out of Ireland. Turns out, there never were any snakes to begin with.
Hawaii, at the moment, finds itself similarly serpent-free. Then again, our isolated island chain was once bereft of mosquitoes, rats, mongooses, cats, dogs, pigs and humans—and we all know how that turned out.
Will snakes be the next uninvited arrivals? If they are, how will they affect Hawaii’s fragile ecosystem and equally fragile economy? Are we doing enough to prepare and protect ourselves? The answers to those questions—wrapped in government cutbacks, bureaucratic headaches and low-level criminal activity—are far from reassuring.
* * *
Ill-conceived.” “Shortsighted.” “Blind ideologue.”
Those are some of the epithets that greeted Republican Governor Linda Lingle’s decision in 2009 to fire 50 of the state’s 95 agriculture inspectors. If the effort to stave off invasive species was a war, it was the equivalent of pulling more than half the troops off the battlefield.
Lingle sold the move as a necessary evil, but environmentalists, activists, small farmers and just about everyone else with a stake in Hawaii’s ecological health wasn’t buying it. “Her management style is so outrageous, she should be removed from office,” Jeffrey Parker, president of Tropical Orchid Farm Inc., told The Maui News in September 2009.
Almost two years later Lingle has been removed from office (by term limits) but Hawaii’s line of defense against invasive species remains frighteningly porous. Sure, last month Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie approved the hiring of 10 new ag inspectors (all on Oahu) and signed Act 202, which directs the Department of Transportation to build new “biosecurity inspection facilities” at harbors and airports, but the department is still woefully undermanned. And it shows: in the six months prior to Lingle’s layoffs, inspectors made 1,457 interceptions statewide; during the same period the following year that number dropped to 730.
“The more eyes you have looking, the more invasive species you’re going to find,” said Plant Quarantine Branch manager Carol Okada in a painfully obvious prepared statement.
But eyes aren’t looking, at least not enough of them. So why haven’t snakes slithered through?
Two reasons, mostly: the diligence of a few passionate individuals and a lot of luck.
“There are some very maniacal people like myself who would do anything over and above the call of duty to keep [snakes] out,” says Fern Duvall, a Maui-based wildlife biologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
At the same time, Duvall admits, the threat is dire. “People should be worried,” he says plainly, before firing off a list of endemic animals he believes would disappear completely if snakes arrived on our shores, including the Valley Isle’s two rarest birds: the Maui parrotbill and crested honeycreeper.
“I would expect all of our birds, even common species, to die out,” says Duvall. “There isn’t a single safe bird.” After that, he says, snakes would move on to kittens, puppies—and anything else they could catch.
* * *
If you want to know what it looks like when snakes destroy an island, visit Guam. Brown tree snakes—native to Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands—arrived in the tiny territory right after World War II. In the intervening decades, they wreaked unimaginable havoc.
First they killed off the native birds, which in turn caused the insect population to explode. The bugs de-foliated the trees, which doomed the lower-growing plants and basically every other living thing on the island. Even the snakes, eventually, suffered. As a result, says Duvall, Guam is teetering on the brink of “total ecological collapse.”
And now for the really bad news: U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors typically intercept thousands of brown tree snakes that otherwise would make the trip to Hawaii or elsewhere on ships, planes and cargo containers. But due to budget cuts and Washington’s new aversion to earmarks, money for those inspections may soon dry up. (Inquiries to Hawaii’s various Congressional representatives about the status of the funding weren’t returned at press time, but anyone following the current debt-ceiling nonsense knows the picture is bleak.)
If Hawaii gets brown tree snakes it’ll obviously be bad for us, but that might only be the tip of the iceberg. “We’re such a portal to the rest of the United States as well as many other places, that we would have greater possibility of amplifying travel of these animals,” says Duvall.
Recently, a venomous, tree-living snake similar to the brown tree snake was intercepted on furniture sent from Indonesia to Maui, tangled in packing tape. Luckily, the people who discovered the snake reported it, but what if they hadn’t? And how many others don’t?
In fact, the idea that there are no snakes in Hawaii is a misnomer. State officials receive dozens of credible snake-sighting reports, including the nine-foot female boa constrictor that was spotted and captured last month in Honolulu.
That snake, like many others, was probably somebody’s pet. To address that persistent problem, officials have begun offering amnesty to anyone who voluntarily gives up an illegal animal. (Otherwise it’s a felony, punishable by up to three years behind bars.) Already scofflaws have handed over more than a dozen animals since late June, including two ball pythons, two boa constrictors and two albino Burmese pythons. That last snake’s relatives have made a home in Florida’s Everglades, growing to lengths in excess of 20 feet and devouring everything from pigs to alligators to small children.
* * *
Of course, snakes aren’t the only invasive species that could wreak havoc in Hawaii. From red fire ants to biting midges, the list of creatures that would upset the state’s tenuous natural balance is long. But snakes occupy a special place in our imagination; Eve wasn’t tempted by a biting midge, after all.
Which brings us to a key reason why snakes would hurt Hawaii’s bottom line: the fear factor. Imagine tourists hiking Hana’s bamboo forest trail, only to encounter a python coiled menacingly around an overhanging branch. Imagine someone’s dog—or worse, keiki—being swallowed by a creeping constrictor. How quickly would we go from America’s favorite vacation destination to another forgotten backwater, fraught with peril?
“Many people are fearful of snakes,” says Duvall. “If you were to come here and have a bad interaction with a snake, you’re likely not to come back again and to go home and tell everyone, ‘Wow, you don’t want to go there. It’s dangerous.’ It would change the perception very quickly. I think it would change the way Hawaii was perceived; we would be a paradise lost.”
The brown tree snake alone could cost the state more than $400 million annually, according to a University of Hawaii study. The USDA National Wildlife Research Center places the number at a staggering $1.7 billion, which certainly puts a few ag inspectors’ salaries in perspective.
“I think it’s an essential government function to protect people and their way of life,” says Duvall. “Everyone talks about government waste and how we don’t need it, but this is an instance where it’s really playing a vital role.”
Pressed to put a number on the odds of snakes taking hold here in the next decade, Duvall says it’s “very low… maybe five percent.” He credits his optimism to “increased public awareness” and the work of groups like the various island-based invasive species committees. Yet, he adds, “I’m pessimistic about the time lag between when we identify an issue and when the bureaucracy can find funding and respond.”
St. Patrick won’t be there to save us, either. But when you asses the issue—and listen to the people who’ve studied it—you’ll take any excuse to have a drink.