The 1800s were a time of radical change in Hawaii

Westerners following Captain Cook’s discovery of the world’s most isolated archipelago began altering a landscape that had long been dominated by Polynesians.

Diseases hit the natives, guns were introduced, and missionaries popped up around the islands with the velocity of a hurricane. Hawaii as it was known began to witness a transformation that would forever alter the demographic of its people and environment.

Maui Mongoose

A large part of that transformation occurred with the introduction of sugarcane—a non-endemic plant that soon proved to flourish in Hawaii’s warmth and humidity.

Beginning with Ladd & Co.’s operation in Koloa, Kauai, and rapidly followed by the creation of plantations throughout the islands, sugar put Hawaii on the map as one of the biggest commercial producers in the world.

With this title came a need to maintain production, thereby bringing plantation workers, flora and fauna from across the planet to Hawaii’s shores.

Among Hawaii’s imports during this era was the Small Asian Mongoose, a species of Southeast Asia’s Rikki Tikki Tavi that was shipped to Hawaii in the final quarter of the century.

Fast, slender and up to twenty-six inches in length, mongooses have long held a vital but varied role in countries across the globe, primarily in controlling snakes.

But their inclusion on a boat that sailed to the Big Island in 1872 was for a completely different reason: to help manage the growing rodent population troubling sugarcane.

Taking their cues from plantation owner W.B. Espeut in Jamaica, Hawaiians first shipped 72 mongooses to the Pacific Sugar Mill on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, thereafter breeding the sneaky critter to send to plantations on the other islands.

There they multiplied and diversified, ultimately becoming a bigger species than those initially introduced from Kingston.

With the exception of Lanai and Kauai, today all of the major islands have mongooses running wild.

The proliferation of mongooses was big indeed, but not in the way intended.

Maui Mongoose

Let loose in plantations to manage the rodent populations, mongooses’ schedules were at odds with the very prey they were imported to hunt: mongooses operate during the day and rats are nocturnal, and while they do feed on rodents occasionally, they don’t make as significant of an impact as was originally hoped.

To compensate, mongooses began going after two of Hawaii’s most beloved fauna: ground-nesting native birds and both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles.

Three of their most targeted prey in Hawaii are on the federal list of endangered species: the petrel (‘u’au), the crow (‘alala), and Hawaii’s official state bird, the nene goose, which saw a decline in numbers from roughly 25,000 in 1778 to a mere 30 in 1952.

As Tom Robbins jokingly put it in his novel Still Life with Woodpecker, “Mongooses also killed chickens, young pigs, birds, cats, dogs, and small children. There have been reports of mongooses attacking motorbikes, power lawn mowers, golf carts, and James Michener.”

In 1916 Hawaii offered a bounty of ten cents per mongoose; today, the small, elusive critter is responsible for more than $50 million in damages to Hawaii and Puerto Rico annually.

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