Photos by Aaron K. Yoshino, Honolulu Magazine

Racing extinction

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

Since moving to Hawaii, David Sischo (2007) has spent a lot of time flying in a helicopter, exploring the beautiful landscape of the islands, but his life is no vacation as he is racing to save the islands’ snails from extinction.

Some Hawaiian snails have been described as the “jewels of the forest” because of their intricate shells, and remain important figures in folklore, hula and chant. They’re also important to the ecosystem — increasing nutrient cycling and protecting plants by feeding on fungus and algae. There were once over 750 snail species throughout Hawaii, but about 90 percent of these snails have become extinct, due to predation, habitat destruction and over-collection, because of their shells.

“When visitors come to the islands, they look up at the beautiful lush green mountains, completely unaware that our incredible plants and animals, found nowhere else in the world, are being quietly erased from the landscape, due to a variety of human induced factors,” Sischo, Coordinator of Hawaii’s Snail Extinction Prevention Program (SEP) said.

“Biodiversity loss is occurring across the globe, but on island chains like Hawaii, extinction has been particularly dramatic. We are truly at a crossroads for many species here.”
Video courtesy of Honolulu Magazine

SEP was established in 2012 with funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, to unify scattered conservation efforts that began in the 1980s. Sischo, whose dissertation focused on population genetics of endangered snail species, became the program’s first coordinator. Among other things, he oversees field and lab work, which involves about 1,400 individual snails in captivity and 50 rare and endangered snail species from across the Hawaiian Islands.

“Our field work consists of surveying for undiscovered remaining populations in remote natural areas, monitoring critical populations, conducting predator control and removal, and constructing and maintaining predator-proof fencing that protects rare populations from introduced predators.”

“In general, our field days start off with a short helicopter ride up to summit areas where our last wild populations remain. From there it will be collecting data, maintaining predator-proof fences, conducting predator control, etc., followed by a quick helicopter ride back off the mountain. Sometimes we camp in remote areas for multiple days to maximize the work we can get done before being extracted from the mountain.”

If snails are taken to the captive rearing laboratory from the wild, the goal is always to eventually reintroduce them to a protected natural habitat, where they have a better chance of survival.

“A typical day in the captive rearing facility, includes cleaning and sterilizing cages, censusing populations, and culturing leaf fungus to feed the snails. Our captive rearing facility currently maintains populations of 20 species of critically imperiled land snails. Five of these are extinct in the wild.”

Despite SEP’s efforts, some species of snails will not make it out of the lab, as is the case with Lonesome George — the last surviving Achatinella apexfulva, one of the first Hawaiian land snail species to be identified.

Lonesome George is about 12 years old and “a bit of a recluse,” spending most of his time in his shell. Even as the last of his kind however, he still gives hope for his species — as his DNA has been preserved for potential cloning.

“We are really racing extinction out here. Many, if not all, of the large tree and ground snails in Hawaii will be gone within the next one to ten years without intervention.”

“Fortunately, I’ve seen an increased number of snails inside predator-proof fenced areas, where they are protected from threats, but unprotected populations are quickly going extinct.”

“The next few years may very well be our last opportunity to intervene for most before it is too late.”

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