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Hawaii Trying to Keep Snakes Out

December 31, 1986

HONOLULU (AP) _ Hawaiians want to keep snakes out of their mid-Pacific Eden, but officials warn that hitchhikers may yet find their way here aboard ships and planes or enter as smuggled pets.

Snakes are not native to Hawaii, and officials believe the reptiles could eat their way through dozens of unique animal species if allowed to establish themselves here.

Earlier this year, lone snakes were found at a container yard, an Air Force base and under a car here.

The finds were trumpeted in local newspaper stories and led wildlife officials to ask again for the public’s vigilance in keeping unwanted reptiles out of the Aloha State.

In Hawaii, unauthorized possession of a snake is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of $1,000, one year in prison or both.

″The bottom line is: we don’t want snakes,″ said Stanley Higa, spokesman for the state Deparment of Agriculture’s plant quarantine branch, which handles snake cases. ″They’re not welcome.″

Hawaii, one of the world’s most isolated land masses, has a number of unique bird species that have proliferated over centuries.

″The problem with islands like Hawaii is that because of a lack of native snakes or reptiles, birds and other animals may be extremely vulnerable,″ said Tom Fritz, a herpetologist, or reptile specialist, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To illustrate, Fritz and others point to the experience of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific.

Sometime after World War II, the brown tree snake established itself on the island, most likely after hitching a ride aboard surplus military cargo shipped to the island from Papua-New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

The snakes are now all over the island, and have eaten much of its small wildlife, particularly the birds.

″That is one of the most interesting things you notice when you go to Guam, the real silence in the forest,″ said Ernie Kosaka, of the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Honolulu.

Seven of Guam’s 10 native bird species are now on the federal endangered species list, according to Harry Kami, chief of the island’s wildlife agency.

In addition, snakes are blamed for three of four major islandwide power outages on Guam this year.

″We are so frustrated,″ said Anette Donner, spokeswoman for the Guam Power Authority.

She said the snakes are believed to cause outages by climbing utility poles and wires, causing local short-circuits that start a domino effect of failures resulting in blackouts throughout the island.

Neither the power authority nor the government has tried to calculate the economic loss from power outages to the island of 123,700, Donner said.

Kami said there have been reports the snakes, which can grow as long as eight feet, have attacked infants.

Officials in Hawaii are worried a brown tree snake from Guam may make it to Hawaii aboard one of the numerous ocean and air cargo shipments between the two points.

Fritz, who is based in Alburquerque, N.M., has visited Guam and Hawaii to study the problem and make recommendations. He has urged increased inspection of cargo leaving Guam.

Other, longer-term solutions might be fumigating cargo or introducing a predator or virus on Guam that would zero in on the snake but not adversely affect the rest of the ecosystem, Fritz said.

″We’re losing the battle unless we do something,″ Fritz said.

A dead brown tree snake found at Hickam Air Force Base in October was believed to have fallen from the wheelwells of a military cargo plane as it prepared to land after flying from Guam.

When a snake was found near Matson Navigation Co.’s cargo container yard in Honolulu, also in October, Fritz identified it as a species from India, illustrating that Hawaii needs to be on guard against snakes from all cargo, not just that from Guam.

A 40-inch Royal python found coiled beneath a car in a business area of Honolulu the same month was believed to have been smuggled into Hawaii and released. It was captured and turned over to the Honolulu Zoo.

Higa says he tries to educate the public about the danger snakes can pose to Hawaii’s ecology. His office gets about six calls a year from residents who want to surrender pet snakes.

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