What to know about protected wildlife in Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands are home to amazing and unique animals.
But as some populations of these animals see their numbers dwindle, it becomes a civic duty for all to help protect the dwindling species that are essential to Hawaiian culture.
Fox News Digital spoke with Ryan Jenkinson of the Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR); he is a member of the protected species and aquatic resources division.
Jenkinson said the department’s goal is to strike a balance between human interaction and animal protection.
With that goal in mind, Jenkinson pointed out that stalking certain species is a federal offense — as well as a disrespect to the people of Hawaii.
“These animals are such an important and vital part of the culture here,” he said. “So coming closer [to them] taking a photo…not only is it harassing the animal, but it’s honestly disrespectful to the people here.
Next time you venture to these beautiful islands, here’s what you need to know about some of Hawaii’s endangered and protected species.
1. Hawaiian monk seal
The Hawaiian monk seal is not only one of Hawaii’s greatest cultural icons, it’s also one of the rarest mammals in the world.
The native monk seal is critically endangered, with only 1,400 seals left on Earth.
The sex ratio is split 50-50, so the 700 female seals capable of procreation are especially protected.
Jenkinson warned beachgoers who might encounter monk seals to be wary of mother seals who are pregnant or with pups, as they can become aggressive, especially in the water.
“Be very careful around them as they are such valuable animals in the context of trying to recover the species as a whole,” he said.
The monk seal owes its name to its solitary nature. This species of seal tends to travel alone; the animals search for food at the bottom of the ocean, then swim up to the shore to find warm, cozy places to lie on the beach.
“They don’t do much,” the expert said with a laugh. “They are just sleeping. They warm up in the sun.
2. Sea turtles
Green sea turtles, also known as honu, are an integral part of Hawaiian culture, but their population is questionable.
The hawksbill turtle is the rarest and most endangered; these creatures are difficult to spot, as they hang around in more remote areas.
The green sea turtle, on the other hand, is more often spotted in Hawaiian waters.
Although it is difficult to tell the difference between the two types of turtles, the more common green sea turtle is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because its population increases by about 5 % every year.
The green sea turtles that cling to Hawaiian waters are among the few in the world that crawl to shore.
Visitors should be sure to give the turtles 20 to 30 feet of space to avoid spooking them and forcing them to exert limited energy.
“Be thrilled with the experience you have with these animals, but don’t harass them. Don’t chase them,” Jenkinson advised.
“Stay out of respect for the people here and the animals.”
Green sea turtles can live up to 70 years. Some females don’t even start breeding until they are about 30 years old, only then do they come to shore to lay their eggs.
“They’re nesting like crazy on the main islands now,” he commented. “I don’t know many other animals that wait that long to breed.”
Sea turtle nests can look like one big pit – so think twice before making a bonfire in the ruts on the beach.
3. False killer whales
False killer whales are not what you expect.
The little whale gets its name from the structure of its skull, which resembles that of the iconic killer whale, but the false killer whale almost resembles that of a dolphin.
Large groups of false killer whales in Hawaii live far offshore, but there is a small group of island false killer whales that remain near the main islands – and they are extremely endangered.
Only about 150 of these whales remain in Hawaii. That’s such a low number that experts worry the species exists, especially since Hawaiian false killer whales don’t mate with foreign pod whales.
These whales are known to be very social with humans. Authorities recommend that any sightings by fishermen or others be reported.
Since these island whales live in very close family units and tend to spread their food among their group, they will also occasionally swim to boats and drop their catch of the day on deck to share as well. with the fishermen.
While this kind of behavior might be considered adorable, Jenkinson advised travelers against any desire to jump in the water and join a group of new whale friends.
4. Spinner dolphins and white tip sharks
Spinner dolphins are not listed as endangered or threatened, but it is still important that the public approach these commonly seen dolphins with caution.
Many tour operators promoting swim-with-dolphins trips will take advantage of dolphins sleeping in pods, Jenkinson suggested. The presence of many swimmers near the sleep deprived dolphins can only drive them away.
New federal rules prohibit approaching spinner dolphins closer than 50 yards, even if the animals head for humans first.
“Look for tour operators who tell you they’re not just going to drive up to a bunch of them and throw you in the water,” Jenkinson said. “They will be space-friendly.”
The same goes with sharks. While there’s nothing illegal about swimming with sharks as part of an excursion, experts advise against approaching sharks in the water.
“They’re still sharks – they’ll bite you,” Jenkinson said. “They’re mostly pretty gentle, even the big tiger sharks.”
Pelagic species like whitetip sharks, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act and protected by the state, often get tangled in fishing lines; Jenkinson said any sightings of whitetip sharks should be reported. These sharks are easily identified by the white pattern on their fins.
5. Hawaiian Goose and Hawaiian Forest Birds
The Hawaiian goose, also known as the nene, is recovering, as its species dwindled to just 30 birds in the 1950s.
Josh Atwood of the DLNR’s forestry and wildlife division told Fox News Digital that there have been various efforts to restore native species. He advised against approaching the nene – Hawaii’s state bird – if he encountered it.
“Species here in Hawaii are an integral part of Hawaiian culture and our daily lives,” he said. “We just ask visitors to be respectful of all wildlife…Try not to disturb them.”
Atwood mentioned that Hawaii has a “very high” number of nearly 600 federally listed threatened species, including forest birds, whose decline is of concern.
Visitors are unlikely to encounter birds such as ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e directly, as much of the species has already been lost; but an awareness of the Hawaiian landscape can help protect bird habitat. For example, Atwood suggested cleaning hiking boots before going up mountains and dragging foreign seeds and diseases.
In a statement last week, the DLNR said it predicted “bleak prospects” for some of Hawaii’s honey birds, whose populations are dwindling due to invasive mosquitoes that spread avian malaria.
There are only 45′ Akikiki left on Kauai and 135 Kiwikiu birds left on Maui, both facing extinction within the next two years.
“The report paints a bleak future for the birds,” the statement said. “There are far fewer birds compared to the past two decades and their available range has been greatly reduced as species move higher into the mountains to escape mosquitoes.”