Hawaii: Frontline for Conservation Botanists will go to great lengths to track down and capture their prey. In the first of two reports this week from the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, one botanist battles knee-deep mud and curtains of fog in search of a rare orchid. His goal is to preserve its seed.
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Hawaii: Frontline for Conservation

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Hawaii: Frontline for Conservation

Hawaii: Frontline for Conservation

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Now in our Climate Connections series with National Geographic, we head to an island paradise - Kaua'i, Hawaii. It's a place where some of the rarest plants in the world live just this side of extinction because of extraordinary efforts to protect them. Some of those efforts have come too late. The quarter of Hawaii's native flora are gone.

But in the first of two reports, NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine discovers that while Kaua'i's native flora continue to be lost, they are also sometimes found.

KETZEL LEVINE: I wish I had a pair of waders.

Any tourist worth her shoes knows if you're after authentic, you got to get off the beaten path, which on Kaua'i will likely leave you knee deep in mud.

This little journey's only doable because the first three miles are on planks. Otherwise, it'd be pretty slow going into Kaua'i's Alakai Swamp.

Do you want to take the camera from me?

The place gives new meaning to wet and wild. No hula-hoop, mai tai luaus here. With every boot step into the swamp through rushing water and curtains of fog, you slop off the centuries like layers of pretense, and only then discover Hawaii.

Oh, my God. I've just walked into a lush, dark place. Epiphytes and moss and tree ferns.

And mints, violets, hollies, primrose - common names, but uncommon plants whose seed miraculously took root here on this island millions of years before people arrived. In the hierarchy of native flora, these are the ancients, overhead and under foot, everywhere I turn, flourishing in a terrarium of a habitat where rain is measured in feet and where the plump ohia blooms.

(Soundbite of drums)

LEVINE: A plant celebrated in this centuries-old chant.

(Soundbite of chant)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Foreign Language)

LEVINE: Pelted by rain, the forest is bruised, crushed are the flowers, they weep in the cold.

In this story of unrequited love, those crushed flowers symbolize a woman, and this shrouded landscape, her temperament. Plants dwell in the heart of Hawaiian culture, whether the glorious red ohia that greeted the first Polynesians or the boat plants they brought with them - the banana trees, coconut palm, sugar cane and breadfruit and the sacred taro, the stuff of poi.

Plants are inseparable from the Hawaiian language. Ohana, the word for family, is rooted in the taro's bulb.

Ms. SABRA KAUKA (Teacher, Hawaiian Studies): We come from plants. Our whole philosophy of explaining how we end up on earth comes from plants. We're descendants of plants.

LEVINE: The voice of Sabra Kauka is a familiar one on Kaua'i. She's a champion of Hawaiian language, culture and the traditionally uses of native plants.

Ms. KAUKA: So if we see them thriving, we know that we, too, as a people, will thrive. We see them disappear, we, too, disappear.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LEVINE: And so the need for today's journey with field botanist from the National Tropical Botanical Garden here on Kaua'i, Steve Perlman, who, over the decades - along with a handful of other adventurers - has quite literally risk his life to save endangered plants.

Mr. STEVE PERLMAN (Botanist, National Tropical Botanical Garden): We are going to try and collect some seeds from the rarest of the Hawaiian orchids, platanthera holochila, because we're down to only, as far as I know, one plant left on Kaua'i.

LEVINE: Unlike the Hawaiian culture, which, since the '70s, has come alive throughout the islands, native plants continue to die. Most tourists don't even notice, distracted by fertile valleys and lush roadsides. But the foliage of flowers they're seeing are largely from introduced species - plants that have escaped gardens and gone wild.

Goats, rats, sheep - they're also invasive species. But trumping them all for sheer destructive power is the wild pig.

Mr. PERLMAN: In fact, we're going to be tracking our way across the Alakai Swamp using some old hunter trails.

LEVINE: Pigs leave an easy trail for hunters and depressing evidence for botanists, expanses of earth that look rototilled, not a root left alive - yet, fertile ground for another ecological nightmare, it's calling card like bouquets on a grave.

Man, all these gorgeous flowering ginger, and I can't even enjoy it because it's an invasive plant.

Mr. DAVID BENDER (Restoration Ecologist, National Tropical Botanical Garden): Yeah, it's hard to enjoy when you know what it's doing to the ecosystem.

LEVINE: So what is it doing to the ecosystem?

Mr. BENDER: Well, as you can see, just…

LEVINE: Also on staff of the botanical garden is restoration ecologist David Bender.

Mr. BENDER: Nothing can germinate and grow underneath the shade of this ginger. So the more it spreads - and it spreads really vigorously - the more area it takes over.

LEVINE: And now, as if it needed any help, the Himalayan ginger and its nasty friends have a powerful ally, climate change, which means the likelihood of increasingly severe tropical storms, storms that will rip into forests and tear the life out of ecosystems.

When Hurricane Iniki ravaged Kaua'i in 1992, some of the rare species Steve Perlman had been monitoring disappeared. He's not going to let that happen this morning, as we step through spongy bog and close in on the green fringed orchid, the last of its kind on Kaua'i.

Mr. PERLMAN: You know, we look under here, just three tiny, little plantlets.

LEVINE: And he scores.

Mr. PERLMAN: It's - just going to work my way along the stem.

LEVINE: Wow, it's tiny.

Mr. PERLMAN: Fully ripe. Yeah, hundreds of seeds in each pod. So…

LEVINE: The seed capsules he collects will now be shift to an orchid specialist at Illinois College. With any luck, a seed will germinate, and a grown plant will be returned to Kaua'i and to its people.

Unidentified Child #1: Hey, look at those plants. Those are the flowers, okay.

Unidentified Child #2: Okay.

Unidentified Child #1: Right there. Right there's the flower.

LEVINE: A child's wonder is part of the payoff for botanists like Steve Perlman, who's talking with kids at a native plant farm.

Mr. PERLMAN: This is cyda falleks(ph), and the Malavasi(ph) or…

LEVINE: Plants he's helped rescue now thrive here in cultivated fields under the watch of these second graders and their Hawaiian studies teacher, Sabra Kauka.

Ms. KAUKA: Okay. Before we put these plants in the ground, we say a prayer. (Foreign Language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign Language spoken)

Ms. KAUKA: (Foreign Language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign Language spoken)

LEVINE: It takes a village and its children to save a native plant.

Ms. KAUKA: (Foreign Language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign Language spoken)

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign Language spoken)

Ms. KAUKA: (Foreign Language spoken)

MONTAGNE: To see photos from Ketzel's adventure and follow the fate of the rare fringed orchid, stop by Ketzel's blog, where it's all Kaua'i all week at npr.org/talkingplants.

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