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Watch: Lehua Island Now Rat Free

April 21, 2021, 12:35 PM HST
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Lehua Island has been declared rat-free after a decade-long eradication effort, officials announced Wednesday, April 21.

The tiny island off of Kaua‘i’s west shore is once again safe for Hawai’i’s seabirds to nest on the steep rocky shores and will allow native plants to flourish once again.

“After extensive on-island monitoring, we’re 99.99% certain there are no more rats on Lehua, which builds on the successful removal of invasive herbivorous rabbits, and secures a future for Hawai’i’s wildlife and ecosystems,” said Sheri S. Mann, the Kaua‘i branch manager for the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW). Rabbits were eradicated from the State sanctuary for seabirds in 2006 but getting rid of the rats proved more difficult.

The Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Island Conservation, Hawai’i Department of Agriculture, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Agriculture, US Coast Guard, and the owners of Ni‘ihau, joined forces in 2017 to implement a rat eradication operation on Lehua, using lessons learned from a failed attempt in 2009.

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“Mahalo to DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and all the partners involved for their efforts to eradicate the invasive species on Lehua Island,” said Kaua‘i Mayor Derek SK Kawakami. “This great work ensures that Hawai‘i’s Seabird Sanctuary can once again safely host our native seabirds that are so crucial to the ecosystem and our local fisheries.”

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Mele Khalsa of the nonprofit Island Conservation, technical advisor on the eradication, said, ”The operation went really well, and almost immediately we saw signs of recovery across the island. But in the months that followed, cameras captured an unexpected outcome, a small number of rats were still present on the island.”

A February field trip to Lehua included a visit and blessing by Kumu Sabra Kauka, a well-known Hawaiian educator.

“It was such a great honor to do a blessing, to see this place, the birds, and the people, who’ve made this wonderful project an amazing success,” Kauka commented. “Oh, my goodness! I can’t wait to tell my students about the absence of the four-legged rodents. About the importance of taking care of the land and the birds. I find the work being done here on Lehua most inspiring.”

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Restoring some of the 14 native plants, 11 of which are found only in Hawai‘i, is the next step in the project. The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTGB) is a key partner for plant restoration efforts, as it was after the 2006 rabbit eradication. Mike DeMotta, a NTGB botanist, is looking forward to seeing Lehua completely restored post-rat.

“There’s no doubt that the rabbits initially, but the rats in the long-term, caused a lot of plants to disappear,” DeMotta said.

Khalsa, of Island Conservation, has spent more time on Lehua in recent years than any other single individual, and she reflects on the magic of the island.

“Lehua is a story of what we can achieve through dedicated and focused conservation efforts, and securing the island has been a critical stepping stone for the protection of Hawaii’s native birds and plants,” Khalsa said. “For now, the birds are happy and we can move on to other aspects of the restoration of Lehua.”

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