East Hawaii News

UH Scientists Work to Preserve Ohia Trees

February 8, 2016, 2:01 PM HST
* Updated February 9, 9:59 AM
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The Seed Conservation Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s Lyon Arboretum has launched a campaign to collect and bank ohia seed, as the species continues to be threatened by Rapid Ohia Death.

“They call it Rapid Ohia Death because if an individual tree dies very quickly once it gets infected you’ll see the leaves all turn brown and fall off in a couple of weeks,” said JB Friday, extension forester with the UH Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “We think we started seeing it spreading in 2010, by 2012 there were hundreds of trees dying, by 2014 there were tens of thousands, and now we’re talking hundreds of thousands or millions of trees.

Last month, the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forest and Wildlife spearheaded a survey made up of state, county, and federal agencies that included an 810,000 acre flight over the Big Island. The January survey found that 34,000 acres were believed to have been infected with the disease. That number is up from 15,000 acres viewed via satellite in 2014.

“We currently have about 30 species that still exist and all but a half a dozen of those are already considered to be endangered,” said Sheila Conant, emerita professor with the UH Manoa biology department. “Without the ohia forest, most of those birds would have nowhere to go.”

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Ohia trees cover 865,000 acres and ohia is considered by many to be the most important tree in Hawaiʻi. Half of the native trees on the Big Island are ohia and native birds and tree snails, many of them endangered, live and feed on them.

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“There is an old Hawaiian proverbial saying, he aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka, the land is chief and the people are its servants,” said Kalena Silva, professor at UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani. “And so we remember that the ohia doesn’t need us, we need it.”

The Seed Conservation Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s Lyon Arboretum is raising funds through a crowdfunding campaign, and will use the donated funds to collect ohia seeds from areas on the Big Island that are most at risk, as well as on Oahu, where certain ohia are endemic, according to the Lyon Arboretum’s Seed Conservation Laboratory’s Marian Chau.

“Our mission is to help prevent extinction of Hawaiʻi’s rare plant species and seed banking is a proven method to accomplish this,” said Chau.

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