A field team with the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project hiked to a remote mountain valley in April to say goodbye to the last remaining ʻakikiki in the wild. 

What You Need To Know

  • There may be up to three ʻakikiki remaining in the wild, but the species is considered “functionally extinct”

  • The birds used to number in the thousands, but avian malaria has rapidly wiped them out in the last few years

  • Biologists are housing some ʻakikiki in conservation centers on Kauai and Maui in hopes that they will be able to return to the wild if avian malaria is eliminated

There may be up to three of the native honeycreepers remaining in the wild, but the species is considered “functionally extinct,” according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

“This was kind of a trip to say goodbye. ‘Akikiki are down to at most, a handful of individuals, maybe even fewer,” said Justin Hite, a field supervisor for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, in a statement. 

The birds used to number in the thousands, but avian malaria has rapidly wiped them out in the last few years. The disease is carried by mosquitoes, who can now fly to the tops of mountains — once a haven for Hawaiian honeycreepers — as climate change warms these areas. 

“That is the tragedy, right?” asked Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton of the KFBRP in a statement. On behalf of humans, she apologized to the birds for creating climate change.

“I do want the ‘akikiki to know that we really appreciated getting to know them. You know, were it not for this crisis, I don’t think people would have gotten to know ‘akikiki as well as we have and come to love them as well as we have,” said Crampton.

Over the last few decades, members of the field team forged connections with the birds, naming them and identifying them by their colored leg tags. One ‘akikiki that stood out was Pakele, who may have had avian malaria, but seemed to be unaffected by it, continuing to make nests and lay eggs. In Hawaiian, Pakele means to escape.  

Crampton said Pakele embodies hope. “That’s represented now by one bird like Pakele, still being out in the wild. That’s enormously important to my staff. I think it’s enormously important to the public and to cultural practitioners who look at Pakele as representing the hope we have, because she just keeps going. Hopefully she’ll find a mate. Even though they cannot sustain a wild population, they can sustain our hope, and that’s critical at this juncture.”

Captive ‘akikiki live at multiple bird conservation centers operated by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. If avian malaria is eradicated, ornithologists hope to release the captive birds back into the wild in order to create a new population, according to DLNR.   

DLNR and partner agencies are currently releasing mosquitoes infected with a bacteria called Wolbachia, which makes it so the insects can no longer reproduce, in an attempt to limit the spread of avian malaria. 

Michelle Broder Van Dyke covers the Hawaiian Islands for Spectrum News Hawaii. Email her at michelle.brodervandyke@charter.com.