Salvation of the Nene Goose
|Patrick Dunn is the co-owner of Ave Azul de la Osa, located in Aguas Buenas, Osa. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org|
There’s no doubt that due to their limited ranges, birds native to the islands of Hawaii were never very common to begin with. But some species such as the IIwi (Vestiaria coccinea) a bright scarlet and black Honeycreeper, numbered in the hundreds of thousands and was found on all six main Hawaiian isles at one time. They were also heavily exploited by the native peoples and used in the feathered capes, cloaks and helmets of ancient Hawaiian royalty. King Kamehameha’s cloak alone boasted feathers from nearly a million specimens but of only 2 species. Honeycreepers from the family Drepanidae were well represented at one time and quite diverse on all the main isles, but most are now either extinct or critically endangered. One native species doing well today, however, is the Hawaiian goose (Branta Sandvicensis) or Nene, pronounced Nay Nay, a descendant of the Canadian goose. There have never been many fresh water sources on the isles, and across the millennia the bird has lost much of the foot webbing that is typical of most other waterfowl in the world. So, the Nene prefers to walk rather than swim.
Until recently the bird occurred on only two of the main Hawaiian islands, Maui and Hawaii. For centuries the Nene was heavily predated by a culture that was mostly accustomed to eating fish, plus a few seabirds. Only three mammals existed, the Hawaiian bat, Monk seal and the whale, of which several species reach Hawaiian shores. By 1950 there were only 30 to 50 geese known to remain. There is little doubt that a single man was instrumental in saving the Hawaiian goose from total extinction. But certain extinction of the species was thwarted by two other key individuals who warrant the recognition. These were Sir Peter Scott from the world famous Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge, England, and Dr. Jean Delacour, the French-born aviculturist and ornithologist. But the task of saving the Hawaiian goose from the verge of extinction was taken up in Hawaii itself. The man who undertook it was Harold C. Shipman, a Hawaiian landowner, cattle rancher and aviculturist. In 1918 he started to keep and breed a captive flock of Nene at Keaau near Hilo on the big isle. In 1927 the Hawaiian Board of Agriculture and Forestry started a similar venture. During the next 30 years the Shipman farm reared 43 birds though some disappeared during the tidal wave that struck the island in 1946 and others reverted to the wild. The Hawaiian board of Agriculture built up its own flock to about 42 birds but for some reason this was broken up in 1935, distributed to private breeders and ranchers, and virtually disappeared. By 1947 it was estimated that there were only 50 birds left on Hawaii, captive and wild, and none anywhere else in the world. The time had come for emergency measures.
The Hawaiian Board of Agriculture quickly started a new captive breeding facility at Pohakuloa on the big isle, the same facility that later hosted the captive breeding project for the A la la or Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) which saved that species from extinction as well. With a couple of pairs of geese from the Shipman farm, a Gander from the Honolulu Zoo and a wild goose caught in 1949, the project was off once again.
In April of 1950 John Yealland, then curator of birds at the Wildfowl Trust, flew from Hawaii to Slimbridge with two of Shipman’s birds. Early in 1951 both these birds laid eggs, so a quick cable and a plane brought a male over from Pohakuloa inside of a week. This male named Kamehameha settled down at once with his hens, Emma and Kaiulani, named after Hawaiian queens. Nine young were reared from the trio at Slimbridge in the following year. When Kamehameha died in 1963 he was the progenitor of more than 230 birds, well over half the world’s population of living Nene geese. Over 170 of Kamehameha’s progeny were living in luxurious and fertile captivity in Europe, a dozen in the continental United States, and 50 returned to the wild in Hawaii.
Meanwhile the breeding stock at Pohakuloa was also building up. By 1962 the total world population of the Hawaiian goose, captive and wild, was estimated at approximately 430 birds. The captive stock in Europe has now been spread to over two dozen menageries as an insurance against disease or parasites or any other hazards of aviculture. The European stock now has its headquarters at the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust with other groups of birds at Peakirk (a satellite of the trust) London, Whipsnade, Antwerp, Basel, Berlin, Cleres, Copenhagen and Rotterdam.
The available figures show that the world population of originally 50 birds between 1947 and 1950 doubled by 1957 and doubled again by 1959 or 60, doubling once more by 1962 and so on. A doubling every 3 to 4 years is geometrical progression indeed. The foresight of all concerned really paid off again, thanks to captive breeding.
The captive Nene in Slimbridge essentially constituted a zoo bank from which it was eventually possible to recolonize the wild.
The zoo I directed on Kauai received 6 unrelated, pure-strained sexed pairs of Nene from the trust in 1986, and by 1994 we had bred some 100 birds. Most were liberated throughout the island. Thanks to captive breeding we now see the species, Hawaii’s state bird, well established on the same island where it had not been seen previously since the 1940s. I remember being elated that we could actually count it in on our 1990 Christmas Count list. Additionally, we also produced over 200 Koloa ducks or Maoli (Anas wyvilliana) dozens of Hawaiian Stilts or Aeo (Himantopus knudseni) Hawaiian Gallinule or Alae Ula (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis) and Hawaiian Coot or Alae Keokeo (Fulica americana alai) all Hawaiian endangered species. I had a wonderful animal care staff of 13 very dedicated keepers over that decade largely responsible for these successes.
Interesting to note, one male Nene reared in Holland in 1898 was transferred to Dr. Delacour’s collection at Cleres, France. When it expired or disappeared during the German invasion of 1940 it was the longest-lived waterfowl ever recorded at the time with indisputable documentation.
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Dr. Delacour, who owned the world’s largest private aviary, boasting dozens of compatible species, was a former director of the Los Angeles County Museum. He was also a Tech Director and advisor to the Bronx Zoo, New York City, and a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History. He was a prolific writer and his books as well as Sir Peter Scotts are considered classics in the field.