Big efforts to save a tiny animal

Kapuna Kawelo
Kapuna Kawelo
Dr. Sam Gon
Dr. Sam Gon

By Stephanie Lum - bio | email

WAIANAE (KHNL) - When you think of endangered species in Hawaii, snails may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Big efforts are underway to save and preserve the tiny Kahuli Snail.

Biologist Kapua Kawelo and Scientist Dr. Sam Gon with the Oahu Army Natural Resource Program and Nature Conservancy work together every week in the Waianae and Koolau mountains.

Kawelo and Gon monitor the dwindling population of the tree snails and make sure rats, the snail's biggest threat, don't roam the areas the Kahuli snails inhabit.

"Rats love to eat the snails so we set up rat traps and re-bait the rat boxes every couple of weeks," says Kawelo.

At one time, decades ago, there were so many Kahuli snails, some said the snails looked like ornaments on trees.  The colorful patterns on their shells gave them the nickname "jewels of the forest" and just as people would snatch up jewels, they were snatched up in numbers by shell collectors.

"People would ride their horses into the forests with empty saddles and come back with their saddles full of Kahuli snails," said Kawelo.

The beloved snail is now on the verge of extinction.

It's not known just how many Kahuli snails are left. Of the 40 species of Oahu tree snails, recent studies say more than half are extinct and most of the others are on the verge of extinction.

Unlike other snails, the Kahuli snails do not lay eggs.

"The snails give live birth to only one baby snail at a time," said Kawelo.

Dr. Gon says this sad reality only makes him work harder to save them.

"It's in song, it's in story, it's in chant. All of those form the foundation of Hawaiian culture. If you lose the physical things of Hawaiian culture, you lose that culture. It would be as if you were singing something and your child asks what is that bird you're singing about and you can't show them because the thing is gone," said Dr. Gon.

Under federal law, anyone caught tampering or harming the Kahuli Snail can face fines of up to fifty thousand dollars.