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Vol. 16, no. 3
June/July 2013


In the Forest of the Gods 

Story by Catherine Cluett


When Moloka‘i’s Ed Misaki took a job with The Nature Conservancy to manage Kamakou, the preserve was brand new, created to address the plethora of invasive species threatening the island’s forested heights. Endemic plants like hapu‘u, a Hawaiian tree fern and a favorite food of feral pigs, were disappearing. Other invasives, like the strawberry guava tree, were a danger to ‘ohi‘a lehua, the native tree that provides sustenance for the crimson ‘apapane bird.


Misaki admits he knew little about managing a preserve when he was hired in 1983, and his learning curve was steep and fast: The 2,800 acres of mist-shrouded Moloka‘i rainforest was the Conservancy’s first managed preserve in Hawai‘i. And this April, as the Conservancy celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of Kamakou, invasive species are almost nonexistent there. In their stead is a place Misaki calls “a botanical jewel,” home to over two thousand native species.


Two years after Misaki began work to protect the preserve—with nothing but a tool shed and an old Ford Bronco—Kamakou’s boardwalk began to take shape. A crew of youth volunteers helped build the narrow 1.5-mile path, which ends near the preserve’s 4,500-foot summit. The boardwalk winds through landmarks like the Pepeopae bog, a moor of primeval peat moss that’s been dated back ten thousand years. “The mother of all sponges,” Misaki calls Pepeopae, and the boardwalk that runs through it protects the delicate ecosystem and spares visitors a knee-deep plunge into muck.


Ancient Hawaiians called the islands’ summits wao akua, or realm of the gods. Only a select few entered the summits, among them the kia manu, or bird catchers, who would place sticky ‘ulu sap on ‘ohi‘a branches, wait for birds to alight, carefully pluck the desired feathers and release the creatures unharmed. Today native birds are admired only from a distance, and the ecosystem remains intact. “I feel privileged when I go into the forest,” says Misaki. “It brings to mind the Hawaiian word ‘kuleana,’ reminding us to be responsible.” To visit, call The Nature Conservancy at (808) 553-5236 to reserve a spot on a monthly guided hike.