Day One – Linking urban sprawl, monk seal conservation and cat poop


Welcome to the 2016 class blog for Marine Conservation Biology. In this course we explore some of the challenges to conservation in the main Hawaiian Islands.  We’ll be spending the first week on Oahu and then hopping over to the Big Island of Hawaii for the second week.

Waikiki as seen from the summit of Diamond Head

We started the first day of class this morning by climbing Diamond Head, the iconic volcanic crater that overlooks Waikiki. The crater was formed about 300,000 years ago.  I like to bring the class up to the summit so that we can look at the development on the south side of Oahu and experience, first hand, the enormous pressure that tourism exerts here.

It’s also a good place to reflect on the massive changes to the flora and fauna of Hawaii that have occurred since the arrivals of Captain Cook in 1778. Almost all the plants and birds in the State Monument (and elsewhere on the south side of Oahu) have been introduced from somewhere else.  Becca (our resident birder) won the prize for finding the first native bird – a beautiful Pacific golden plover, just about to make it’s spring trip to breed in Alaska. It’s a mostly vertical hike of about 200 m up to the summit, where we were treated to a spectacular view of Waikiki.

The intrepid class feeling pretty good about themselves after hiking Diamond Head. And looking forward to lunch.

We returned to the East-West Center at UH Manoa for a delicious Hawaiian lunch at a food truck outside Lincoln Hall, where we are staying. Furikake tofu and green papaya salad. Yum.

After lunch we drove across Honolulu to the NOAA Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island.  Stacie Robinson, Acting Director of the Hawaiian monk seal program, welcomed us and helped us negotiate our way through security at the front gate. Stacie and her colleagues Tracy Mercer and Angela Amlin (an MEM grad) then walked us through their work conserving Hawaiian monk seals. There are only about 1,200 monk seals alive today, most of which live in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  This is one of the most hands-on conservation programs in the world, with many types of interventions, including translocations, vaccinations, and head-starting. About one-third of the monk seal population is alive today thanks to some form of past intervention.

Learning about the monk seal conservation program. And cat poop.

Angela focused on one of the emerging threats to monk seals – a disease called toxoplasmosis, caused by a parasite that is transmitted from the feces of feral cats (there are some 300,000 feral cats on Oahu alone).  Toxoplasmosis has caused the deaths of at least eight monk seals in recent years.  This topic generated a great discussion and illustrated the multi-faceted nature of conservation work.  Who knew that conserving monk seals would require considering of the fate of feral cats and their poop? Many thanks to Stacie, Tracy and Angela for giving up their afternoon to host us.