The Big Island’s wild cattle secret

Wild cattle have a long history on the Big Island of Hawaii. They first arrived as a gift for a king but within a short time they grew to become a widespread pest. The introduction of cattle may have been the reason for the birth of Hawaiian cowboy culture but wild cattle in the 21st century present ongoing challenges to the environment.

History

In the late 18th century cattle were introduced to Hawaii. After a small number of cattle were gifted to King Kamehameha I they were declared protected and no cattle were allowed to be slaughtered. By the middle of the 19th century there were over 25,000 wild cattle on the islands. Eventually the burgeoning cattle population began to damage crops, as well as proving dangerous to the general public. The ban on hunting cattle was lifted in 1832.

Did you know? Kamehameha III invited vaqueros (cattle herders) from the mainland and Mexico to train Hawaiians on how to control the growing wild cattle problem on the islands. This was the beginning of what is now known as the paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys. Interestingly, the ukulele is a product of this cross culture mix between Hawaii and Mexico.

A wild breed

What is now the modern Hawaiian wild cattle is in fact a fairly distinctive feral breed. Smaller than the average Hereford cattle, the wild breed tends to have longer legs and is thought to have a stronger temperament. They also have a unique capacity to survive without a significant source of water for long periods. In order to survive, the cattle must glean water from dew-covered foliage or wherever they might find sitting pools of water after a rainstorm.

Ecological Damage

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands have identified wild cattle as having a distinct negative impact on the forest environment. Cattle contribute to the spread of Rapid Ohia Death, the devastating fungal infection affecting the Ohia tree population, and even the spread of gorse.

Hunting

Because the state of Hawaii considers wild cattle to have an adverse affect on the Hawaiian forest environment hunting is welcomed. They are not just hunted to control numbers but also as a food source. Wild cattle meat is enjoyed by those locals who make the effort to hunt them, braving the rocky mountain terrain of the forest and the sometimes elusive cattle herds.

A mature Hawaiian bull can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. This means that killing a bull is one thing but carrying the animal out of the forest is quite another. Bulls are also prone to charging when cornered so care is needed, especially as wild cattle tend to be faster and more agile than the average cattle.

McCandless Ranch

Horizon Guest House is bordered by McCandless Ranch (all photos were taken along the boundary fence), one of the many large ranches on the Big island. It’s along this boundary that herds of wild cattle can be seen emerging from the forest to graze beside the fence line. At night you may even hear the calls of bulls in heat from deep within the forest. This unique call almost sounds like it might have more in common with a dinosaur roaming the forest than a common cattle!

Wild cattle on the Big Island have a unique history and are now a well established part of Hawaiian rural life. But controlling the cattle population remains the key to conserving the forest ecosystem and protecting the flora of the Big Island.

Authored by

Wild pigs on the Big Island of Hawaii – friend or foe?

Wild Pigs Hawaii Tribune Herald 2020
Wailoa State Recreation Area, Hilo. Photo credit: Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

In the first months of 2020 wild pigs caused significant damage to orchards and crops at Horizon Guest House. The pigs, who live in the surrounding forest of McCandless Ranch, were in the habit of making regular raids on our property. Our gardening efforts, and attempts at protection, were left in disarray as they carved a trail of destruction.

Unfortunately, feral pigs on the Big Island of Hawaii have become a widespread problem. Wild pigs are attracted to a wide variety of food sources. On the Big Island these include crops such as macadamia nuts, bananas, avocados and pineapples. Our banana and pineapple plants were almost all destroyed over a period of months. Significant rooting damage was also done to the garden.

Wild Pig Big Island Hawaii KITV4 Island News
Photo credit: KITV4 Island News

Where did the pigs come from?

It was originally thought that the feral pigs in Hawaii were the direct descendants of those brought to the islands by Captain Cook in 1778. Captain Cook arrived with pigs, chickens and other animals. However, a 2016 study found that most of the feral pigs alive in the islands today are in fact the descendants of those introduced by Polynesians in approximately 1200 AD. [1]

That the origins of the feral pigs are not solely European will be helpful for future discussions about conservation on the islands, as well as their role in Hawaiian cultural heritage.

Wild Pigs Hawaii News Now
Photo credit: Hawaii News Now

Impact on forest ecosystems

Wild pigs also have an impact on the forest ecosystem. A study by the University of Hawai’i found that soil macroinvertebrate communities (organisms that do not have a spine but can be seen with the naked eye, such as snails and insects) remained unaffected by the presence of feral pigs in the environment.[2] However, earthworms and beetles may benefit from association with sites rooted by wild pigs.

Another study found that the absence of feral pigs over time led to increased bacterial diversity in the soil and that there was an overall increase in the ‘ecological resiliency’ of the soil.[3]

WIld Pigs Tribune Herald 2017
Corner of Komohana and Mohouli streets, Hilo. Photo credit: Tim Wright, Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

How to combat feral pigs

Pigs don’t like dogs and will tend to avoid an area if they sense or smell their presence. Culling the invading pigs is also another option, but in the case of Horizon this won’t stop the arrival of more pigs as they breed at such a rapid rate in the adjoining forest. The feral pigs are resourceful and have found creative ways of digging under the boundary fence in order to gain access.

Horizon Guest House Garden
Horizon's new garden fence

Instead we decided on a new approach. We fenced a section of the garden off completely. This area, currently housing the existing vegetable garden, will now also be where we grow the crops most vulnerable to pig invasion. New banana and pineapple plants have been planted and the existing vegetable garden has been expanded. The fence itself has been engineered to be as pig-proof as possible. Additional fence posts have been positioned close together to ensure that the fence is as tight as possible and therefore difficult for even the tiniest of pigs to burrow under.

Feral pigs might appear to be cute and relatively harmless but they continue to cause problems on the Big Island as their numbers in populated rural areas continue to rise. Creative solutions are the best way to try to mitigate their impact on a local level, while perhaps a concerted effort on a state level is needed to combat the issue further.

References

Linderholm A., Spencer D., Battista V., Frantz L., Barnett R., Fleischer R.C., James H.F., Duffy D., Sparks J.P., Clements D.R., Andersson L., Dobney K., Leonard J.A. & Larson G. (2016). [1] A novel MC1R allele for black coat colour reveals the Polynesian ancestry and hybridization patterns of Hawaiian feral pigs. R. Soc. open sci. 3, 160304. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160304

Wehr, N.H., Kinney, K.M., Nguyen, N.H., Giardina, C.P. & Litton, C.M. (2019). [3] Changes in soil bacterial community diversity following the removal of invasive feral pigs from a Hawaiian tropical montane wet forest. Sci Rep 9, 14681. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-48922-7

Wehr, N.H., Litton, C.M., Lincoln, N.K. & Hess, Steven C. (2020). [2] Relationships between soil macroinvertebrates and nonnative feral pigs (Sus scrofa) in Hawaiian tropical montane wet forests . Biol Invasions 22, 577–586. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-019-02117-3

Authored by