As is always the case in conservation, there’s good news—and there’s bad news.
Let’s start with the bad.
A Hawaiian tree snail named George, the last known member of the species Achatinella apexfulva, died on New Year’s Day. He was 14 and likely the last of his kind in the world. Researchers could never find a mate for him, thus he was nicknamed Lonesome George.
“I’ve been completely shocked by the public outrage over [the death of another species], and I think it’s a good thing,” says David Sischo, coordinator of the Snail Extinction Prevention Program at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Sischo had known George since he was born in a captive breeding facility at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “People should be upset that this is happening. These [snails] are underdogs. People don’t often care about invertebrates … so it feels good that people care and this has gotten so much attention. The snails deserve it. They’re being erased from the landscape at a rate as if an asteroid has hit the Earth, and I think people should be moved to action by that.”
But, around the time George died, something inspiring happened.
In December 2018, 72 rare land snails reared at the Honolulu Zoo were released in a protected habitat in a remote part of the Waianae Mountains on Oahu, marking the first time this species, Amastra cylindrica, has returned to the wild.
The species, a land snail found on Oahu and nowhere else in the world, was thought to have gone extinct in the wild in 2015. The state, in partnership with Bishop Museum and the Honolulu Zoo, have been successfully breeding them in captivity and are now releasing the offspring back into a protected mountainous habitat.
The Honolulu Zoo got its first 10 snails to breed in 2017. Now, it has dozens of these tiny land snails, living in several plastic boxes that are kept in a cool, dark place in the back room of the new Ectotherm Complex, which opened in November 2017.
Becky Choquette, one of the keepers who has been rearing these snails, pulls on plastic gloves disinfected with 70 percent ethanol. She carefully lifts out one of the adult snails, measuring just 8 millimeters from the tip to the base of the shell. “They’re humble, not flashy,” she says, describing the land snails with undeniable affection. “They live quiet lives in the leaf litter, going about their snail business.”
Every Sunday, around noon, the workers bring out these boxes to a viewing area, where visitors can watch them feed the snails decaying mamaki (Pipterus albidus) and ieie (Freycinetia arborea) leaves and clean their living quarters.
“These animals are going back into the wild, where they belong, to help the population,” Choquette says. “That doesn’t happen too often at the zoo, where we’re actually breeding animals to go back into nature.”
Before the arrival of humans, the Hawaiian Islands were home to more than 750 species of land snails, or pupu kuahiwi—including just over 200 in the tree snail family—many of them endemic to each island. They have important ecological jobs in the forest: They function as decomposers, breaking down detritus, reducing the abundance of fungi on leaves and protecting native trees from diseases.
“Snails are ubiquitous,” Sischo explains. “From coastal strands to the highest summits, there would be snails. And the diversity in the Islands is likely unmatched anywhere in the world. Even [Charles] Darwin knew about our snails.”
But, in the last two centuries, snail populations have been decimated by the destruction of native habitats, shell collecting by humans and predation from introduced species, including rats, Jackson’s chameleons and the rosy wolf snail (Euglandina rosea), which was brought to Hawai‘i in 1955 to combat the giant African snail. The remaining 200 or so species of land snails that remain are extremely vulnerable.
“All of them,” Sischo says, “are critically in peril.”
And saving these snails goes beyond their ecological importance. Pupu kuahiwi have cultural significance, too. They were known by a variety of names—pupu kani oe (whistling sounds of the snail), kani ka nahele (sounds of the forest)—and were often featured in Hawaiian oli (chant), mele (songs) and moolelo (stories).
“These snails have strong cultural ties to Hawaiian cultural practices,” Sischo says. “I’m going out on a limb when I say this, but these snails are probably the most revered invertebrates in the world, in terms of culture. So you lose these species, you lose that, too.”
Sischo was part of the team that released the 72 land snails into a protected exclosure built by the Oahu Army Natural Resources Program in the Waianae Mountains. It was a cold and rainy December morning—actually perfect conditions for snails—when the researchers emptied the little glass jars in which the snails were kept. Sischo played “Born Free” by John Barry from his smartphone. While he chuckles at the memory of it—he plays this song every time he releases any animal back into its natural habitat—there’s a lot of sentiment to the words in the song.
“Born free, as free as the wind blows.
As free as the grass grows.
Born free to follow your heart.
Live free and beauty surrounds you.
The world still astounds you.
Each time you look at a star.
Stay free where no walls divide you.
You’re as free as the roaring tide.
So there’s no need to hide.
Born free and life is worth living.
But only worth living
’Cause you’re born free.
Scientists have preserved a 2-millimeter piece of George’s foot, stored at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Frozen Zoo, to provide DNA should cloning become an option. Which it might in the near future.