Brown Tree Snake

Last August, shortly after a cargo plane landed at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, a young airman reported seeing a brown snake about three feet in length dart from the airport tarmac into a nearby canal.

In most parts of the world such an event would have gone unnoticed. But because Hawaii is serpentless and the transport plane was from Guam -- an island inundated by the dreaded brown tree snake -- an intensive hunt by state and federal authorities ensued.

Whether the snake in question was actually a brown tree snake is not known. It was never caught. However, seven brown tree snakes have been intercepted in the islands since 1981, and all have been on or associated with aircraft from Guam.

What's more, the Hickam incident was the sixth general snake sighting in six months. Experts warn that just one pregnant female brown tree snake hiding in aircraft cargo holds or wheel wheels and slipping through could begin a colonization that might devastate Hawaii's environment and tourist-dependent economy.

A little more than a year ago, attempts by Hawaii's Congressional delegation to secure federal funds for brown tree snake control were criticized as "pork barrel" spending. But one month after the Hickam sighting, House and Senate conferees in Washington approved $1.6 million in funds for brown tree snake research and control efforts. The federal appropriation is twice what was received during the past fiscal year and triple the amount for previous years. More importantly, the approval signaled that public awareness efforts to inform the media and lawmakers in Washington about the seriousness of the threat were paying off.

A native of the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Australia, the brown tree snake arrived in Guam via military transport after World War II and now numbers up to 10,000 per square mile in some Guam forests. Reaching 8-10 feet in length, this troublesome reptile has nearly wiped out Guam's bird populations and causes, on average, one power outage every four days.

Hawaii's evolutionary isolation from the continents and its modern role as a commercial hub of the Pacific make these islands particularly vulnerable to alien pest introductions such as snakes. More than one-third of all the threatened and endangered birds in the United States are found only in Hawaii. Plants and animals here evolved with few diseases and natural predators, and therefore have few natural defenses against continental invaders. Like Guam, Hawaii has abundant suitable habitat and prey resources for hunters like the brown tree snake, and relatively few predators to control it.

Small wonder state authorities take snake control efforts seriously. Anyone caught with a snake faces as much as a year in jail and a maximum fine of $25,000. In addition, a Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species (CGAPS), a multi-agency partnership of 14 federal, state and private interests, last year formulated a 10-point action plan aimed at keeping alien pests out of the islands.

Part of that plan includes researching new snake control methods and more extensive inspection of aircraft arriving in Hawaii. But increasing public awareness is also a high priority. This past year, CGAPS brought together the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, the Governor of Hawaii, and the state's Congressional delegation to launch a statewide alien species public awareness campaign. Although the campaign targets a whole host of alien pests that threaten the islands, the brown tree snake is the campaign's "poster child."

Elements of the campaign have included distributing a 28-page four-color report entitled "The Silent Invasion" to educators, journalists, lawmakers and business and community leaders; establishing a central pest reporting system; developing curricula for the schools; and conducting a pre-campaign poll of island residents to gauge levels of awareness of the alien pest issue.

Because 40% of the alien pests intercepted in Hawaii are found in baggage from arriving passengers, future efforts will put greater emphasis on reaching visitors through a passenger education program that will include airport educational displays, a revamped agricultural declaration form, a flight attendant briefing program, and advertisements in airline and travel publications. Also on the agenda are more effective tools to measure the alien pest problem in Hawaii and its impact on the state economy.

Not surprisingly, the public awareness effort has stimulated interest from the print and broadcast media. In addition to heavy local coverage, a front page story on the brown tree snake threat that appeared in the Washington Post generated additional reports by the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, National Public Radio and other national and international media outlets.

Increased public awareness has, in turn, resulted in greater political support. For example, shortly after the launch of the Silent Invasion campaign, President Clinton visited the islands and was told by local newspapers editors that while funding for a snake might seem silly to someone on the U.S. mainland -- where snakes are common -- out in the Pacific it is a serious concern.

Clinton got the message, and included $1.6 million in funds for brown tree snake control in this year's White House budget. House and Senate approval of those funds indicate that Congress is also getting the message and that the battle to educate the public and influence lawmakers is being won.

by Alan Holt (Deputy Director, The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii)

(This article was originally published/is soon to be published/was recently submitted for publication in "World Conservation (in Europe?)"; the complete citation will appear here when I get it.)

Bio Note: Alan Holt is Deputy Director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, a non-profit organization dedicated to eco system protection. He earned his Masters in Botany from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and worked as a field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service before joining the Conservancy in 1982. His expertise includes alien species control strategies, nature reserve planning, public relations and communications on conservation issues, and promotion of conservation-related scientific research to support biodiversity protection.

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This page is a product of the Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk Project, copyright (c) 1996, 1997 Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii (article text retains original copyright; posted on with permission of the author). This page was created on 18 December 1997 by PT, and was last updated on 18 December 1997 by PT.