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Palm Plight

Assaulted by myriad threats to their survival, palm species around the world face the likelihood of extinction

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Several groups are trying to save Hawaii’s palms by protecting their habitat. About two million acres of native forest and scrubland remain intact, according to the Nature Conservancy, and a quarter of them are managed by federal or state agencies, or private groups. Both national parks in Hawaii have fenced off large areas and eradicated pigs and goats. On Maui, Oahu and Molokai, a number of land partnerships have been formed in recent years, bringing together all manner of public and private landowners in cooperative efforts to thin out invasive species and protect native ones.


Meanwhile, Ken Wood and other scientists are doing what they can to preserve palms in the wild. As Wood and I trudge cautiously downhill, scanning the landscape for Pritchardia’s stiff, fan-shaped fronds, we surprise a pair of feral goats, munching at a bank of ferns. They skip down a 70-degree wash. “Bane of the terrain,” Wood mutters.


We’re probing below the rim of HonopuValley now. It’s noon, and the mist has yielded to blazing sun. Suddenly Wood exclaims: “Whoa! There’s a Pritchardia.”


Sure enough, 50 yards upslope from us, a solitary green fan peeks out from some twisted ohia branches. It’s a P. minor, one of perhaps 500 remaining. The species can grow 30 feet tall, but this young specimen is only a sixfooter. Wood cuts off a frond with his knife, folds it along its accordion pleats, wraps it with pink and black tape, and thrusts it and a handful of seeds into a plastic sandwich bag. He jots down notes with a stubby pencil: number of fronds, diameter of stem, other nearby species, elevation 3,190 feet, 300 degrees northwest. (All of that information will be stored in an NTBG database used for mapping palm distributions and abundance.) Then we head home—mission accomplished, for today, but the battle goes on.


What’s at stake can’t be measured in strictly biological terms. If palm trees should vanish from the earth, something more than genetic diversity and habitats will have been lost forever. An essential aspect of our tropical fantasies will disappear as well. Without palm trees, paradise will never be the same.


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