It’s sadly fitting that the nene is both Hawaii’s official state bird and an endangered species. Before the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, there were more than 20,000 of the wild geese scattered across the islands. By the middle of the 20th century, that number had plummeted to less than 30. Supervised breeding in the islands and abroad have brought the population back from the brink, and officials now estimate there are almost 2,000 nene statewide.
But threats to the bird have not disappeared. If anything, they’ve intensified, as population growth and development encroach on the nene’s habitat. Human-introduced predators—including mongooses, dogs and cats—also pose a danger, as do non-native plants, which can choke out the flora the geese rely on for sustenance. According to the Audubon Society, “Despite tenacious re-introduction efforts beginning in the 1960s, the population still has not recuperated to a self sustaining condition.”
In short: we’re the problem—and we’re also attempting to be the solution.
That paradox is embodied by Nene Awareness Day, which was observed on September 26 and is simultaneously a PR stunt by politicians looking to boost their environmental credentials and a genuine effort to shine a light on the plight of the nene—and to ensure the birds’ survival.
It’s always sad when a species is pushed to the edge by human activity. But the nene is an exceptional case, both because of its isolation and the unique circumstances surrounding its genesis.
Though it’s now a distinct species, biologists have traced the nene’s beginnings back to a group of Canada geese that inhabited the Hawaiian Islands hundreds of thousands of years ago. Those birds were precursors to several species of Hawaiian geese, with the nene being “the only surviving member” according to findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A 2002 National Geographic report describes how researchers pieced together the nene’s ancestry using DNA extracted from fossils preserved in lava-tube caves. The article concludes that the nene’s story demonstrates both the natural wonder of “specialized adaptations” and “indicates how rapidly isolated populations can be exterminated by human activities.”
Which brings us back to present day, where the struggle to preserve a still-fragile bird—one that has come to symbolize both the uniqueness and fragility of Hawaii—goes on. Maui Time Weekly, Jacob Shafer