Flight for Survival: The Race to Save the ‘Akikiki

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Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are threatening the ‘akikiki birds survival (Image credit: Department of Land and Natural Resources).

The ‘akikiki is a small gray-colored bird indigenous to Hawaii. What’s special about this bird, however, is it is one of the rarest animals in the world. Only five of these birds remain in the wild, and the chances the species could go extinct are extremely high.

The reason for the near extinction of these birds is the threat of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. For many years, the ‘akikiki birds have been living in the cold mountains of the islands in Hawaii, living out of range from any mosquito. However, rising temperatures as a result of climate change have led the mosquitoes to find their way up to those mountains, leading to a disastrous outcome.

“The populations have basically taken a nosedive over the last 15 to 20 years as the climate has changed and mosquitoes are going higher and higher in elevation,” said Hannah Bailey, wildlife care manager of the Hawaii Endangered Forest Birds Conservation Program for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Due to a lack of resistance to mosquito-borne diseases, the birds are dying in quick succession to avian malaria, which “is almost always fatal to most of the small honeyeater adults,” Bailey explained. 

With the species on the brink of extinction, preservationists like Bailey are trying desperate measures to save the species. Their focus is on creating an insurance population in bird conservation areas such as on Maui islands to ensure the species’ survival.

“Our mission is to provide safe haven populations of the species that are in peril, so that when the environment is right for them to survive long-term, we’ll be able to re-release them,” she said. 

Recently the team has put their efforts into finding the remaining unhatched eggs and bringing said eggs to conservation centers where the eggs can be carefully cared for. This summer, the team has already rescued ten eggs, which were safely brought back to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. There, the rescued eggs can be monitored and taken care of, and eventually successful hatchlings will be able to join the other ‘akikiki in human care. The birds will then be able to live in an environment that is designed to mimic their natural habitat, with human interaction limited so the birds can continue living with their natural behavior. 

Eventually, once the threat of avian malaria is gone, the birds will be able to go back to living in their natural habitat. “It’s the best chance for survival and raising these young chicks hopefully will give us the next generation of ‘akikiki,” Bailey says.

Written by Kevin Han

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