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Barbara Fahs Headshot

Jungle Beat: We Got Critters

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Hawaii has bugs. Lots of them. Can you blame them for wanting to live here? Many came from places that get so cold in the winter it kills them and their offspring, but they thrive year-round here. I often tell visitors and newcomers, "If you're anywhere in Hawaii where there are no mosquitoes, you can rest assured that poisons are being used to keep them away."

When you fly to the Islands, all airlines ask you to fill out a form that states whether you are carrying any fruit or vegetables, animals or plant material. It's based on the honor system, so some troublesome species arrive accidentally because travelers simply don't report what's in their luggage. However, when you fly OUT of Hawaii, you must pass an agricultural inspection, where your luggage is x-rayed by a special plant-seeking machine. This is because other states, such as California, which is a primary destination for airline travelers, have strict laws that prohibit the introduction of foreign fruits, vegetables, plants and animals.

Coincidentally, I just read this in John Steinbeck's book, Travels With Charley, which he wrote in 1962: "California searches vehicles for vegetables and fruits which might carry pernicious insects and diseases, and regulations of these are enforced with almost religious intensity." Not so for Hawaii. Do the Hawaiian authorities not want to inconvenience arriving tourists, for fear of losing the precious dollars they add to the State's economy? Or do they just not care? Is the "aloha spirit" too loosey-goosey?

On a larger scale, shipments of nursery plants, Christmas trees and other agricultural products bring with them new critters and plant diseases. Certain plants that we already know are invasive, such as the strawberry guava and autograph tree, are legal for Hawaii nurseries to sell for landscaping. The tiny but very vociferous coqui frog arrived on imported plants in 1988, authorities now believe. In some places on the Big Island, up to 2,000 frogs per acre cause the decibel level to rise to 70, which equals that of a vacuum cleaner, according to the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture.

The problem of introduced pests goes beyond a few annoying mosquitoes and a bunch of noisy frogs. When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii between 300 and 600 A.D., they found no mosquitoes, no rats, no amphibians or snakes, and no invasive plants or weeds that could choke out the native plants in our forests. It truly must have been paradise, but it isn't any longer. The "silent invasion" is the name the Hawaii Invasive Species Council has given to the onslaught of introduced species. We can't blame modern society for its carelessness: With the very first explorers' ships came rats, mosquitoes and some foreign plants. They also introduced human diseases such as syphilis, leprosy and common childhood illnesses such as measles and mumps, which killed thousands of ancient Hawaiians.

The good news is that Hawaii does not have the Anopheles mosquito, which causes malaria... yet. And we don't have snakes... yet.

Snakes are a special concern of mine because they creep me out, and I'm sure many other people share my loathing. The absence of snakes is one reason I moved here in 1998. However, the Guam brown tree snake poses a very real threat to Hawaii because it can hitch a ride on the undercarriage of aircraft and also stow away on cargo ships. The damn things climb power poles and cause power outages on Guam an average of every three days. They are also mildly venomous and up to 10,000 of these devils can occupy one acre of land.

But this deserves its own blog post. Stay tuned. The important point to take away from this discussion is that Hawaii needs stricter controls to keep out additional plant and animal pests.