HONOLULU – Axis deer, a species native to India presented as a gift from Hong Kong to the king of Hawaii in 1868, have fed hunters and their families on the rural island of Molokai for generations. But for the community of about 7,500, where self-sustainability is a way of life, the invasive deer are both a cherished food source and a danger to their island ecosystem.
Now, drought on Molokai has brought the problem into focus. Hundreds of deer have died from starvation, stretching thin the island’s limited resources.
The drought is among the island’s worst in recent memory and has been going on for nearly two years.
“During the last wet season, which in Hawaii runs from October through April, it never pulled out of drought,” said U.S. National Weather Service hydrologist Kevin Kodama. “It’s been pretty bad, especially for pasture conditions and just the general vegetation. ... It’s had an impact on the wildlife.”
In India, axis deer are kept in check by tigers and leopards. But with no natural predators on Molokai, the population has exploded, and there now are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 deer on the 260 square mile (673 square kilometer) island.
Residents have a hard time controlling the population by hunting alone. And the animals, in desperate search for food and water, are destroying crops and forest watershed people rely on for food and drinking water.
When the deer devour fruits, vegetables and other plants, it leads to erosion and runoff into the ocean that alters the island’s coral reef — another important food source.
“Molokai has the longest continuous fringing reef in the United States, and it’s one of our community’s greatest assets,” said Russell Kallstrom, information coordinator for the Nature Conservancy’s Molokai program. “When ungulates overpopulate an area, that erosion impacts not just the reef, but people’s lifestyle and the subsistence lifestyle that’s there.”