By JENNIFER OLADIPO
SEJ members Joy Horowitz, Erin K.D. Judd, Charlotte Kidd and Jennifer Oladipo were four of seven environmental reporting fellows at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawai'i in May.
The mountainous island of Kaua'i, less developed than other larger islands of the archipelago, was the backdrop for a weeklong examination of issues that threaten tropical ecosystems. Fellows learned how introduced species – from feral pigs to ironwood trees to rosy wolfsnails – have helped Hawai'i earn the dubious distinction of "extinction capital of the world." Along the coast, development has also been a persistent source of habitat loss and species extinction.
The fellows' packed schedule included talks and demonstrations by botanists and cultural experts from the Botanical Garden staff and from the community. Journalists also engaged in activities such as a kava ceremony and trying their hand at making kapa cloth from mulberry tree bark. Such activities provided a welcome break from indoor lectures, but also helped elucidate Polynesian culture and Hawaiian history.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden has gardens on the north and south shores of the island, which house collections of native plants, including rare species found by "extreme botanists" known for maneuvering rough terrain and steep mountainsides in search of new and endangered species. Fellows toured the sites with some of those same botanists, and were able to experience living specimens up close.
Weather throughout the week, as could be expected, was perfect. "Vog" – the sulphuric haze that wafts from the Big Island when the trade winds shift – darkened the skies for just a day, and scant rains came in the evenings. The only reality that might have marred the otherwise spectacular scenery was learning that the view comprised mostly invasive species. Only on their final day together did journalists have the opportunity to see a pristine Hawaiian forest, 4,000 feet above sea level where most humans, animals, and even many insects have been unable or unwilling to live. It was a fitting close to the fellowship, a living example of what island conservationists strive to protect and restore.
Jennifer Oladipo is an SEJ member and freelance journalist in Lousville, Ky. She participated in this year's NTBG fellowship.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, 2008