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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012

 

Good for the Goose 

Story by Shannon Wianecki

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

 

Home again: The nene flourished in Hawai‘i after their ancestors arrived on these shores half a million years ago, but when humans reached the Islands the birds’ population dropped precipitously. The nene were all but extinct when partner breeding programs in Slimbridge, England and Pohakuloa pulled them back from the brink. Today there are almost two thousand nene in Hawai‘i, with some 250 to 300 of those in Haleakala National Park.

In June 1962
a strange parade ambled down the cindery, zigzag track that descends into the heart of Haleakala National Park on Maui. Chaperoned by a few wildlife biologists and some pack mules, a dozen Boy Scouts navigated Sliding Sands Trail and then headed out across the heart of the volcanic crater. Each of the scouts was packing a cardboard box, and each cardboard box contained a goose.

 

The geese in the boxes had come all the way from England—not on their own wing power, but in the hold of an airplane. Nonetheless they were bona fide Hawaiian birds: Branta sandvicensis, or nene as they’re known in the Islands.

 

Even though it was summertime, chilling winds blasted Haleakala’s tenthousand- foot summit, and the young scouts of Troop 56 started out wearing snug caps and coats. But as they trekked the ten miles that it takes to cross the crater’s moonscape, the sun grew high and hot. Everyone was headed for the verdant grasslands at Paliku, the cabin farthest from the park’s summit, which catches the little rain that falls in Haleakala. Inside the boxes roped to the boys’ backs, the geese jostled and occasionally emitted a startling honk.

 

“I carried three birds,” remembers Carl Eldridge, who was 17 years old at the time. A husky football player, he hiked back and forth in the crater to assist younger scouts with their geese. “We struggled but we all helped each other. It was a fun thing for us. We got to go hiking. We knew the importance of the bird.”

 

The scouts of Troop 56 had earned merit badges for canoeing, but this endeavor was on a whole different scale: What kind of merit badge do you give for helping to bring a native species back from the brink of extinction? That’s just what the scouts were doing. When the boys finally freed their feathered cargo at Paliku, the nene waddled out of the boxes and stepped foot on Maui, home again for the first time in seventy years.

 


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