Where the Wild Things Went: Tracking Hawai‘i’s Most Elusive Non-Native Animals
From alligators to wallabies, an eclectic mix of alien creatures has been reported roaming the Islands. We set out to sort fact from fiction.
Caiman in Nu‘uanu Reservoir.
Illustrations: Meen Choi
You might have heard about the wallabies of Kalihi Valley. Or maybe recall the scaly caiman discovered in the ’80s in Nu‘uanu Reservoir. But what about the red-bellied piranha swimming in Wahiawā’s Lake Wilson?
When it comes to Hawai‘i’s most elusive non-native animals, forget mongooses and wild pigs. Our state has served as a second home to a menagerie of creatures: from alligators, falcons and veiled chameleons to reports of leopardlike animals. Everybody knows somebody who tells a tale about spotting one of these creatures in the wild. So what’s the deal? Are families of giant reptiles and big cats roaming our Islands?
Domingo Cravalho Jr. says probably not. And he should know, after a 30-year career working for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, first as a plant quarantine inspector on Maui until retiring in 2010 as Inspections and Compliance Section Chief, responsible for operations and conducting investigations. That meant, for decades, Cravalho saw a lot of unusual creatures and, for years, he was the one who also held them up for TV crews and photographers to document.
“These are all non-native species to the state of Hawai‘i. And most of these introductions are probably related to people bringing them rather than animals coming here on their own,” Cravalho says. “Health and safety is a high priority. And large predators are a problem.”
Red-bellied piranha in Lake Wilson.
In the early 1990s, a Windward resident went freshwater fishing in Wahiawā’s Lake Wilson and caught an omnivorous red-bellied piranha. These are the sort with a reputation of being able to ferociously tear apart humans or cattle in seconds, the type of piranha you see in B-movies. (In real life, they’re actually relatively timid scavengers, operating somewhat as vultures do on land.)
The fisherman brought it home and, for a time, kept the piranha in an aquarium. Eventually he came forward and turned it in. Cravalho and his team traveled to Lake Wilson with the Aquatic Resources Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources to determine if there were any more red-bellied piranha in the lake, using a process called electrofishing. “It’s a boat that sends an electric current down into the water. The fish get stunned and they float up to the top but they don’t die. We scoop them up, look at the fish and release them back into the lake,” says Cravalho. The survey didn’t find any other red-bellied piranha.
And then there was the caiman. In the early 1980s, this reptile in the alligator family was often sighted near Nu‘uanu Reservoir. Despite attempts by crews from the Department of Agriculture to capture it using a baited trap atop a floating platform, they never snagged the caiman. After a few months, it disappeared. Then, in 1983, a call came in about a dead animal in the spillway from the reservoir to Nu‘uanu Stream. Cravalho was sent to the scene and found the body of the caiman—just the body. “Somebody had taken the law into their own hands and blew off its head,” says Cravalho. “It had also been dead for a while and had begun to decompose. Let’s just say that having to retrieve it wasn’t a very pleasant situation.”
It was Cravalho’s first gator, but it wouldn’t be his last. On another occasion, reports of a dead reptile under the bridge near Maunawili Stream reached the Department of Agriculture and Cravalho went to investigate. There, he discovered the body of a 6-foot-long male alligator. It was intact and without outward signs of trauma, but the skin was bloated and had begun to slip off.
It also smelled. Bad. This was a time before the department stocked body bags, so Cravalho wrapped the carcass in heavy black garbage bags, threw it in the back seat of his Jeep Cherokee and rolled down the windows. “At every stop light, people in other cars would kind of look around, wondering where that overpowering smell was coming from,” says Cravalho. “I’d be looking around too, pretending like I didn’t know either.”
Maunawili is a popular fishing spot and no one who frequented the area had seen reptiles there. “It’d be hard to miss a 6-foot alligator that might be traversing the waterways,” says Cravalho. “There wasn’t any indication that the animal lived nearby. The animal might’ve just been discarded there because it’s hard to get rid of a 6-foot carcass.”
So: How does someone bring in a 6-foot-long alligator to Hawai‘i? Start small.
“At the time, you could purchase alligators that were maybe 12 inches long for like 20 bucks in places like Florida or California,” says Cravalho. They’re miniature, they’re cute and people could sneak them into the state and then house them in an aquarium, feeding them a diet of insects and fish. As they grow bigger, however, you need a larger container to keep them. And a 6-foot alligator would require a very large enclosure.
“At this point, what I would call an irresponsible pet owner might say, ‘I’ll just release it into the wild,’ if it’s native to Florida or Louisiana or similar states. But, in Hawai‘i, we do not have alligators in the wild,” says Cravalho. “Well, we shouldn’t have alligators in the wild.”
BROTHERS NICK AND RYAN LUNDQUIST SPOTTED THIS CUBAN KNIGHT ANOLE, INVASIVE TO HAWAI‘I, DEVOURING A BIRD IN DECEMBER 2016.
Reptiles don't have to become huge to become a menace for Hawai‘i residents and wildlife. Last December, brothers Nick and Ryan Lundquist were on a roofing job in Kailua when they spotted a big lizard in the trees. It was hard to see at first, blending in perfectly with the matching green of the surroundings, but the dead bird in its big mouth made it easier to spot. “[The bird] looked kind of mangled or whatnot. It looked kind of weird, and then the next thing I know … just a big old lizard eating it, so I yell to my brother, you’ve got to get up here,” Ryan Lundquist told KHON2 at the time. (See the video above.)
They cut the branch and the lizard leapt onto the roof. Ryan grabbed it, the lizard started biting him on the hand (luckily, he was wearing gloves) and they placed the agitated creature into a mesh-covered bucket. The Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture later identified the giant lizard as a Cuban Knight anole, native to Cuba but spotted throughout South Florida. And now Hawai‘i, where a population of the reptiles lives in Windward O‘ahu, climbing trees and going after native insects, birds and eggs. In February, a 6-foot-long iguana was discovered in Waimānalo by a startled resident doing yardwork.
Whenever any new creature is introduced to the Islands, there is an impact. If the effects are noticeable, the species is considered invasive. Dr. John McHugh, administrator of the Plant Industry Division at the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, has seen how bad situations can get. He cites the coffee borer beetle, originally from Africa, which was first discovered on Hawai‘i Island in 2010. Back then, only a few farms had beetles. Within three years, 100 percent of Kona farms were infested. The beetles have now spread to Maui and O‘ahu, causing as much as a 20- to 30-percent loss of coffee-farm production if unchecked, according to McHugh. “To combat that infestation, the farmers have to spray a pesticide. That adds cost and risk to coffee farming,” says McHugh.
And forget about needing a whole population of invasive creatures for them to survive: Just one or two loose members of a non-native species can find a way to multiply and subsequently wreak havoc. Remember the lesson of the movie Jurassic Park? Life will find a way.
Wallabies in Kalihi.
A century ago, that’s exactly what happened with two wallabies, marsupials taxonomically related to the kangaroo, in Kalihi Valley. “Richard H. Trent’s Wallabies Flee From Their Cages,” exclaimed the headlines of The Hawaiian Gazette in August 1916. “Strange Australian Pets of Real Estate Man Escape Into Mountains.”
Like something out of King Kong or Godzilla, news of an exotic escaped creature swept Honolulu, captivating residents. Trent had built his own zoo, which the Gazette described as “practically a public institution, maintained at his personal, private expense for the public’s pleasure.” Here he kept several monkeys, parrots, cockatoos, lovebirds and two koalas he named Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland.
When an animal collector with an assortment of circus animals passed through Honolulu en route to Australia in 1916, Trent purchased three brush-tailed rock wallabies—mom, dad and a joey—which he temporarily housed in a tent until he could find cages for them. Neighborhood dogs attacked the knee-high wallabies that night, killing the joey, but the mom and dad escaped to the hills.
According to John L. Long’s Introduced Mammals of the World: Their History, Distribution and Influence, the escaped wallabies grew their numbers from two in 1916 to 50 by 1921, then to an estimated 250 in 1981, with additional colonies believed to have been established in Moanalua Valley, Waimano Valley and the ‘Aiea Loop Trail through the mid- to late 1970s. (Recent estimates put the total at less than 100 wallabies in Kalihi. The Department of Forestry and Wildlife no longer tracks the population because they are not considered a threat to local species.) Considering wallabies have an expected lifespan of between 12 to 15 years, it means this single pair of wallabies spawned at least eight generations of descendants, likely more.
Some species would’ve been even harder to stop, because many don’t require a male and female to propagate. Several species of snakes have this ability, including copperheads and boa constrictors, and they’re considered particularly troublesome in Hawai‘i. Many (including the boa) are nonvenomous. But they’re known to prey on birds and eggs, which poses a threat to many of Hawai‘i’s endangered indigenous birds. They also wouldn’t have any natural predators in the Islands, which means their numbers could quickly multiply.
This was one of the dangers when a boa constrictor was discovered on Hawai‘i Island in the 1990s. Tourists driving to a macadamia-nut farm in Hilo spotted a snake crossing the road. They reported what they saw when they got to the farm’s visitor center, but workers there explained there weren’t snakes in Hawai‘i. When another person mentioned seeing a snake several days later, the farm manager knew they had a problem. Responders in Hilo later located a 6-foot-long boa holed up in a clump of grass off a nearby roadside.
In 2013 on O‘ahu, Kailua residents Jesse Spence and Kanoa Wilson ran over a boa on Pali Highway, near the entrance to the Nu‘uanu Reservoir. “I saw something in the road and I said, ‘Yo, that’s a snake,’ but my friends said, ‘You’re tripping, there are no snakes in Hawai‘i,’” Spence told Hawai‘i News Now at the time. They pulled over and took the creature to the Department of Agriculture, which identified it as a boa constrictor. This one was 5 feet long, but boas can grow up to 12 feet. In 2011, a group of pig hunters on a Fourth of July excursion captured a boa constrictor near Waiawa Correctional Facility that measured more than 9 feet and weighed 57 pounds. Snakes can sometimes arrive hidden in cargo on planes, such as those from Southeast Asia.
In 2011, the Department of Agriculture had an especially crazy year. In addition to the boa constrictor the pig hunters found, 11 other reptiles were turned in within a two-week period: a baby iguana, two leopard geckos, three bearded dragons, a blue-tongued skink, a tegu lizard, an albino Burmese python and two more boa constrictors.
Dangerous as these animals may be, at least the department can catch them. Birds are another matter. “It’s not out of the ordinary for migratory birds to arrive here,” Cravalho says. “There’s the possibility of them arriving on their own from the West Coast, getting blown off course or hitchhiking a ride on a vessel en route to Hawai‘i.”
Cravalho remembers routine reports of peregrine falcons hunting pigeons in urban areas where tall condominiums could provide high perches to prey from. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Kaua‘i had a golden eagle, until an incident in which the eagle met up with the rotating blades of a tour helicopter.
In terms of birds, Kaua‘i residents might be more familiar with the rose-ringed parakeets inhabiting the island’s lowlands. Workers at a bed-and-breakfast in Lāwa‘i originally brought in the lime-green parakeets with bright red bills during the 1960s to hang out on the front porch and surrounding areas. Despite clipped wings meant to prevent flight, they escaped. By 1981, they were regularly spotted foraging for food in nearby Hanapēpē Valley and going to Kukuiolono Park in Kalāheo at night to roost.
Meanwhile, on O‘ahu, the ’80s saw the arrival of red-masked parakeets. One escaped from Paradise Park in Mānoa Valley in 1987, and another from Blaisdell Park at Pearl Harbor in February 1988. That December, five were seen in Kapi‘olani Park. Fast forward to more than a decade later and their numbers keep growing, with 21 red-masked parakeets spotted in 2001, 30 in 2002 and 62 in 2004. Ever seen those flocks of parrots exploring Mānoa and Makiki? According to Cravalho, many of these are most likely attributed to escaped or released pet birds. “Cockatoos, mitred conures and Indian ringneck parakeets, to name a few,” Cravalho says.
Other species of exotic birds across O‘ahu include the salmon-crested cockatoo, white with a pink mullet, and the red-crowned Amazon, an endangered parrot species whose population in its native Mexico has decreased to less than 2,000.
Parakeets and cockatoos are cuter to see in the wild than, say, a snake or alligator, but they’ve also wreaked some havoc on Hawai‘i’s local ecosystems. According to farmers on Kaua‘i, the rose-ringed parakeets consume as much as 30 percent of their lychee and longan crops. The birds are centralized in the lowlands, but if they decide to move up, their presence would have a devastating effect on native Hawaiian plant species and watersheds. Estimates as of February 2017 place the population around 5,000 birds.
OLIN LAGON AND HIS WIFE WERE DRIVING THROUGH KALIHI WHEN LAGON SPOTTED A WALLABY HOPPING AROUND IN THE GRASS.
Over the years, assorted big cats have been especially elusive. During the summer of 2003, wildlife officials on Maui set up traps near Olinda to catch a catlike animal that residents described as about the size of a Labrador Retriever and having a big head, with tan or dark brown fur and an upturned tail. At the time, state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall speculated that the creature could be a jaguar or a leopard. Nearly 20 years earlier, in 1984, a man driving through the woods spotted a big cat leaping from a ditch near Kōke‘e on Kaua‘i. In February 1988, the state unsuccessfully searched for what was believed to be a cougar above ‘Āina Haina, but they scored a break in 1991 when they seized a 3-month-old female cougar from a Hawai‘i Loa Ridge home after hearing the cat’s soft whistle. Pālolo Valley residents reported seeing a large, tawny wildcat in August 1993. The investigations continue.
The best anyone can do is keep an eye out. Last year, renewable-energy entrepreneur Olin Lagon may have shot the first recorded video footage of a wallaby—a century after the first ones appeared on the island.
“I’ve only seen the wallabies twice in my life,” Lagon says. “You don’t expect to see little kangaroolike creatures in Hawai‘i, so, when you do, it gets your attention.”
Last January, Lagon and his wife were driving through Kalihi when he spotted a wallaby in the grass. He pulled over, took out his cell phone and began shooting. The video went viral locally after it appeared on TV news. Lagon also posted the video on YouTube below, where one commenter captured the collective sentiment of the Islands in regard to these fascinating, elusive creatures with a single sentence:
“So da legends are true!!”
Got An Illegal Animal?
If you’ve got an illegal animal in your possession, Cravalho recommends turning it in to any Department of Agriculture office or Humane Society, the Honolulu Zoo or the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo if you’re on Hawai‘i Island. Over the years, these organizations have received hedgehogs, porcupines, ferrets, sugar gliders, bearded dragons and African clawed frogs. “People should think twice about having animals like this, because Hawai‘i is our home and we need to protect it from things that would be damaging to our environment, which evolved here for years without any intrusion or pest species,” says Cravalho.
The state of Hawai‘i offers an amnesty program which provides immunity from prosecution to those who give up most illegal animals, with no fines or questions asked. If you’re caught with an illegal animal, the maximum penalty is up to three years in prison and a $200,000 fine.
Location Found: Big Island & O‘ahu
Lives throughout Central and South America
Salmon Crested Cockatoo
Location Found: O‘ahu
Endemic to eastern Indonesia
Location Found: O‘ahu
Native to the tropical areas of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean
Got info about anyone with an illegal animal or spot one in the wild? Call the toll-free state pest hotline at 643-PEST (7378).
READ MORE STORIES BY JAMES CHARISMA