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May 3, 2006

The Mongoose: A Maui Menace

Mongoose1.jpgWhenever we plan to visit somewhere, I always look up the local wildlife. So when we headed to Maui, I was ready to check out lots of birds, turtles, fish and a couple rare mammals. I hoped to see a critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, although I was doubtful we would manage that since there are less than 1500 left.

The Devil-Eyed Snake Charmer

Most of the mammals on Maui, and Hawaii in general, are not native. They were introduced for a variety of reasons, and I've frankly never seen so many feral species in one place. One particular alien species I wanted to check out was the Indian Mongoose. As in Kipling's Jungle Book character Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the devil-eyed cunning critter is famous for taking on venomous snakes like king cobras. But that's not why the ferret-like mongooses are sometimes referred to as the most dangerous animal in the world. That illustrious title was earned when it became clear that the mongoose is unparalleled when it comes destroying native species. A fact that Hawaiians learned the hard way.

So why, you might ask, would the mongoose be purposefully introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, the endangered species capital of the world? And by that, I'm refering to the fact that Hawaii has more endangered species per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. The answer is simple. The story of how the Mongoose got to Hawaii is a familiar one of greed.

Greed and rats. (Just like the feral cats got there!)

Way back in 1872, some Jamaican sugar planter (rum yum!) got this great idea to introduce the mongoose in order to keep his rat problem under control.

W.B. Espeut got the idea that Indian mongooses might take care of the rat problem in Jamaica if turned loose in the sugar cane fields there. So he sailed across the ocean to Calcutta on a ship called the Merchantman, captured four male and five female mongooses (one pregnant) and brought them back across the ocean to Jamaica.

Twenty years later, in a journal article, Espeut gave the mongooses rave reviews. Besides killing rats, he wrote, "snakes, lizards, crabs, toads and the grubs of many beetles and caterpillars have been destroyed."

More At: Importers of mongoose ignored voice of caution

It'd Be Amusing If It Wasn't So Sad

Mongoose2.jpgEspeut was so successful, he created a new Jamaican export: more mongooses! When the article reached the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii, the farmers saw an answer to all their rat problems. So despite some dissent, the Hawaiian farmers ordered 72 mongooses from the Jamaicans in 1883. The mongooses were raised on the Big Island and spread amongst the islands. Little did they know...

Lana'i and Kaua'i remained mongoose-free, but on the other islands, the introduction of the Indian Mongoose has been a disaster of epic proportions. Mongooses do kill rats, but not the numbers needed to justify their use. Unlike the nocturnal rats, the mongoose is active during the day. So instead of ridding the islands of rats, the mongooses have found many other things to eat instead. Their diet is surprisingly varied. In fact, it appears there's very few things that a mongoose won't eat.

The nature of their foodstuffs depended largely on the opportunities available. An examination of the stomachs of 180 individuals revealed insects, spiders, snails, slugs, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, eggs of birds and reptiles, all kinds of rodents, crabs, fish and fruits. Members of this species have also been known to catch mammals many times their size, up to the size of hares and even the young of white-tailed deer.

More At: Animal Diversity Web: Herpestes Javanicus Diet

The Indian Mongoose has no natural predators in the Hawaiian Islands and so they have to be controlled using poisoning and trapping. They carry several nasty diseases including rabies and leptospirosis.

Nowadays, mongoose rule every Hawaiian island except Lana'i and Kaua'i, and even there it may only be a matter of time. Recently, mongoose have been sighted on Kaua'i. Almost all the mongooses on the Hawaiian Islands today are descended from those nine original ones brought over by W.B. Espeut from Calcutta.


Where Are All The Birds?

seabird.jpgWe expected to see lots of tropical birds in Hawaii. Sure, we did see some neat-looking cardinals and lots of cattle egrets. But where were the seabirds - the albatrosses, the petrels, the frigatebirds (I love that word)?

We were told to go to Lana'i, since they don't have mongooses. We didn't see a single sea bird on our entire week-long visit to Maui. This is not really an exaggeration - the total was two in a wildlife refuge surrounded by water.

Two... on an island.

chick.jpgMongooses love eggs (Shane prefers the term "potential birds"). They throw eggs against rocks to break them open and then eat them. The mongooses have preyed on not just the eggs though, but also fledgling and adult native Hawaiian birds, not to mention endangered sea turtle eggs and hatchlings.

One case that seems to have truly horrified the Hawaiians is that the mongooses like to snack on the Hawaiian State Bird, the Nene, or Hawaiian Goose.

In 1952 the remaining nene population was estimated to be about 30 birds. Current estimates are around 1,300 birds in different populations on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Molokai and Kauai.

Almost half of the statewide population exists on Kauai, probably due to the fact that predatory mongoose are not known to be established on the island.

More At: Star Bullletin: Maui ranch to host sanctuary for state bird

What's To Be Done?

nene.jpgMongooses are even more difficult to get rid of than rats. They're smarter and more agile. The IUCN has listed the mongoose as one of the top 100 worst invasive species, causing $50 million in damages each year in Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands alone, but while some money is spent on combating invasive species, it hasn't been enough in terms of wildlife management and the mongoose has a firm hold on the islands. That $50 mil figure is interesting, but you have to wonder how one would measure species extinction in dollars.

Some people have taken the matter into their own hands, reminding us of the snow monkey (Japanese Macaque) bounty we heard about in Japan. Rumor has it there's a B&B in the Big Island that used to give a free night's stay to anyone who brought in a dead mongoose with treadmarks that matched your car tires... You gotta wonder, did they stop because it was in poor taste or because the frequency of mongoose roadkill made the promotion too costly to the B&B hosts?

Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!

Posted by sorsha at May 3, 2006 6:33 PM


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Here's a little conversation I had with a reader of this blog post. Thought it was funny enough to share:

Reader: I love the pic of Shane swimming with the turtle. And, of course, the mongooses. They really do have evil red eyes. I want one I can train and keep as a pet, which will sleep at the foot of my bed to protect me in case of poisonous snakes.

Laurie: Poisonous snakes I shall be putting in your bed regularly, just to watch the drama

Reader: Note to self: Make sure apartment door is locked before falling asleep.

Laurie: Too bad I'll train the mongoose to let me in

Reader: My mongoose will be loyal...and well fed, so don't even think about trying to bribe him with bloody meat products.

Laurie: Ok, then I'll train your husband to instead.

Reader: Could you also train him to put his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper?

Laurie: Perhaps. But if you haven't managed to do it already, I hear they get harder to train as they get older, just like puppies.

Just a note: The Ricki Tavi mongoose IS NOT the same mongoose as we have in Hawaii. AND we do not have snakes for them to eat! good thing. They DO NOT have evil eyes, and can we hold the stupid humans responsible for the mongoose problem? Where is the real accountability here? the animals are just being animals. It's not their fault they were brought here to be exploited for some greedy plantation idiots! Humans are by far the worst invasive species in this fine state of Hawaii.

Thanks for the comments, Tracy. I especially agree with you about not considering the mongoose an evil creature, when it is just doing what it does best. Even if the invasive creature is a problem and causing all sorts of environmental damage, it should be dealt with humanely.

A couple of notes and clarifications:

(1) Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a mongoose character in the fictional children's story by Rudyard Kipling. The story takes place in India, and thus the mongoose that battles cobras in the garden there is quite likely an Indian mongoose species. I don't think Kipling got very specific about what subspecies, but I do know that the invasive mongoose introduced to Hawaii to control the rats in the sugar cane is the Herpestes auropunctatus [Herpestes javanicus] (Viverridae) - AKA the Small Indian mongoose. You can find out more about the spread of the Indian mongoose in Hawaii on HEAR.org's website. The herpestes javanicus mongoose is famous for being able to kill snakes, including cobras.

(2) I have said it before, but it merits repeating, as Tracy did. There are no snakes native to Hawaii. The mongoose introduced in Hawaii are not battling snakes, but causing damage to the local native species.

(3) The mongoose is a fascinating critter. Yes, it deserves our respect. By devil-eyes, I am refering to its very red eyes. I do not think any animal is evil, so much as struggling to survive and thrive in its habitat. I never said it was their fault for being in Hawaii. The thoughtlessness was entirely of human origin.

(4) Humans as invasive species. I do like this analogy. I often try to think of people as just another animal, and give every living creature equal weight and responsibility for its actions and its place in the world.

However, if that is the case... then just like the mongoose, the humans are just doing what humans do, right?

Okay, so I have a little family of mongoose setting up house in my residential yard here in maui; I went looking for help on how to locate someone to humanely remove them; the Humane Soc. referred me to the DNLR who referred me to the State Dept of Agric. who referred me a dept of wildlife biologist on Oahu whose only suggestion was for me to trap and then whatever. If the mongoose is such a dreadful invasive species, why isnt wildlife management providing services to safely and humanely remove them where needed?

Dear Shirley,

I feel your pain. Once you educate yourself about a problem and recognize you're a part of it, wouldn't it be nice if there were services to support your choice to help with the solution?

I've had similar problems with other critters that pest specialists won't touch, and give you a phone number for Fish and Wildlife, who will only offer some phone tips and good luck wishes.

Wildlife management officials have their hands full just keeping mongoose off public lands and preserves. Unfortunately, the consumer and their yard comes second.

The tricky part here is that you live on an island. There's no real non-lethal method of managing them your trouble of mongoose, so you are forced to look at unpleasant management methods.

You could take the easy way out - harass them out of your yard and make absolutely sure you're not feeding them cat food or anything like that. Do what you can to make them unwelcome on your property.

But that doesn't do much for the larger problem. If pest companies like Orkin will handle mongoose (somehow I doubt it) they can do so, but it will be quite pricey and not as effective as if you aggressively address the problem yourself.

Humane traps like Have-A-Heart will leave you with a scared, starved animal that you still need to dispose of somehow. They're mostly for problem animals you can release back into the wild 50 miles away - like a raccoon.

Quick lethal snaptraps are one of the most humane ways to kill smaller rodents (avoid glue traps) and poisoned bait can also be effective but unpleasant because of where the animals might die.

I don't know how well some of these methods will stand up to a mongoose. There are certainly some websites talking about research into what methods are most effective for wildlife management officials.

It's frustrating but generally the task is left to the homeowner, whether it's an invasive mongoose or a leaf-munching beetle, or an oak disease.

i love it

Why doesn't the State of Hawaii offer the public a bounty for dead mongooses and give recommendations for the proper weapons and ammunition. My last several trips to Oahu, Maui and the Big Island made it clear that this could be a viable solution. ($50 million could pay for 5 million dead mongooses at $10 each!)

There are many unemployed/underemployed folks on the islands who could earn some money and help restore an ecosystem that is seriously out of whack! Please note, I'm not a gun nut at all, but whatever programs they have in place are obviously insufficient.

We also saw very few birds on our recent stays, with the exception of non-native species such as doves, mynahs and cardinals which seem to be competing quite successfully against the native species.

I'd love to see some data on how effective bounties are.

I have heard of bounties in Australia (various invasives) and Japan (mongoose and others).

This document from the Negative Impact of an Invasive Small Indian Mongoose Herpestes javanicus on Native Wildlife Species and Evaluation of a Control Project in Amami-Ohshima and Okinawa Islands, Japan had the following info:

Trappers were paid a bounty of US$20 per mongoose ... and a total of US$78,000 was spent on bounties on the island by both governments in the first year (2000).

However, some trappers lost their incentive to trap because reduced capture efficiency after the first year, so the bounty was raised 80% to US$36 and a total of US$123,000 was spent on bounties in the second year (2001), and US$67,000 in the third year (2002). Therefore, a total of US$268,000 was spent on bounties for 9,960 mongooses captured during four years of the full-scale project. In 2003, the bounty was raised again to US$45 to increase trapper motivation, and three full-time trappers were employed for captur-ing mongooses...

Trapping techniques are too labor intensive for use over large areas, so the capture ratio was very low because the mongoose density in the northern part was very low, and the trappers had to check their traps every day because non-target animals...

In our first trip to Kona Kailua, Hawaii about 20 years ago, we could sit on our lanai and watch mongooses by the dozens scampering below. But about ten years later, we saw NO mongooses. We were wondering where they all went, but your web site talks as though they are still there and a problem. Incidentally, we have visited Maui at least 20 times in the last 30 years and have NEVER seen a mongoose there.

Mongoose are still a problem in Hawaii, just go to any state park there and ask how mongoose are impacting their wildlife management practices.

I've seen mongoose each and every time I've visited Hawaii, including this past year. I was on Maui.

Why are you not seeing so many? I'd like to say it's because the invasive species elimination practices are working, but it's more likely that mongoose populations are proportional to the food sources available. Mongoose have already decimated Hawaiian bird populations, so there are fewer eggs for the mongoose to eat, etc.

Do you see more birds or less than you did 20 years ago?

We stayed on Maui for a week in October. On the road to Hana, we stopped at Waiaanapanapa State Beach and found several of the mongooses being fed by tourists in the parking lot! I've only recently found out about these animals and no longer found them cute!

I just got back from Maui visiting my mother for Thanksgiving. We took the road out to Hana and were surprised at how prominant they are in the black sand beach state park. I saw probably 20 different animals! I was trying to figure out why they like that location so much until a tour bus rolled in and the tour guide started feeding them so the tourists could take pictures. I wanted to say something to him, but it's almost like telling the snorkel boats to stop feeding the fish... Until there is more focus drawn to the damage they do, all of this will continue. I did also see one more down by Secret Cove in Ahihi Reserve...

Hi Amelia,

I know what you mean about not wanting to confront the tour guide, but I do think you can still do something.

If possible, take a picture of the event so you have a record of the date, time, and name of the bus company.

Then you can look up the company and write them a polite letter stating that what they are doing is illegal and its in their best interest to not feed the mongoose that are destroying the native species of the Hawaiian Islands.

End your letter with a request for a timely response so you know they are actually going to attempt to address the problem. Attach the picture of the event in question.

Wait for a reasonable period of time for a response. I put a reminder to myself in my Outlook calendar for about 6 months. I attach my original letter to the outlook calendar entry.

If they don't respond, then I make a copy of my original letter and modify it to be ABOUT the issue, and send it to a reasonable news outlet. For example, the local newspaper for that area of beach coastline. A letter to the editor, or a local Sierra Club chapter. You've given them a story and some "proof" to work with, they have the people and the resources behind them to make a difference.

Just a thought. Many Hawaiians are unemployed or at poverty level. If there was indeed a bounty established for each mongoose delivered dead, it would be easy to set up a small cottage industry, of captive mongoose breeding. The breeder could then breed the animals, kill them, and turn them in for profit at the State's expense.

Why, James,

What faith you have in your neighbors!

I expect any bounty program would be set up to realistically counter such things. Perhaps via quotas, or testing for breeding parent/siblings, who knows?

Plus, the bounties aren't that much and breeding mongoose and trapping/transporting them would cost money. Hard to make a living out of something that would instantly be suspicious when you turned in the critters.

Can anyone on this blog/string tell me whether it is accurate to say that mongoose carry the disease leptosprirosis? I have read that in several sources and I would like to use it as an argument that it is not feral cats that Hawaiian residents should be afraid of, but mongoose. I volunteer for a TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return) program in East Hawaii (Keaau) and I am tired of an argument that feral cats are destroying the bird population, particularly the native bird population like nene, here. I am convinced it is the burgeoning mongoose population. Thanks. Judith Bird

Hi Judith,

If you live in Hawaii, you have the best chance of answering this question by talking to the local animal control/fish and wildlife to see about case studies.

However, leptosprirosis is a contagious disease often spread amongst various animals, from dogs to cows to people. Rodents are a common vector, but mongoose are not rodents, but more closely related to cats in the Animal Kingdom.

Regarding who to blame for the decline in native birds... I think we're talking about two different types of predators. One highly invasive (the mongoose) who eats primarily eggs and young birds. The other, feral cats, who aren't eating eggs, but eating the birds themselves. Also introduced into the wild and now considered invasive.

Mongoose came over on a boat and the authorities are actively trying to eradicate them and keep them from spreading to outlying islands, etc. Feral cats were not introduced accidentally, but through human negligence with their pets.

Both need to be addressed. Both are huge problems in Hawaii.

My wife and I played golf recently at Pearl Country Club in Pearl City on Oahu. We saw several mongoose on the course. Fortunately, they did not confuse our golf balls with bird eggs and make off with them. But if they are running around golf courses, they must be a huge problem.

I have seen hundreds of mongoose in the rain forest. I see very few birds. I am sad that such a problem exist. The mongoose is a cute animal but I can see that it is bad for Hawaii. It looks like a bounty would help. I think traping may be more costly than shooting them with guns. But guns are dangerous to humans and other citters. What could I do to help? I love Hawaii and hate to see the decline of birds and other native things. Why not put a bounty on them? Look at the results in the past of bounty programs, the wolf is no longer seen in many parts of the US now. The only problem I see is, the problem with an increase of Rats on the Island. I live on the Big Island. I would rather have the mongoose than the Rats. Also shooting a mongoose would be very difficult they move like lightening and are very small. Trapping would be hard because the mongoose is smart. What would you use for bate that they could not resist?
It is a problem that needs to be addressed. Are Mongoose good to eat? They look like squirrels which I use to eat in Oklahoma.
Maybe a Mongoose burger? or a mongoose liver sandwitch. If you have ever eatten one maybe they are food on the table! But if I was given $25 for each I would probably figure a way to get them and get the bounty.
What is the solution??

Wow, Victor. That's a lot of questions and some great ideas. A couple of points...

Mongoose are very interesting to watch and I have no problem with them *in their native environment*.

Hawaii is not their native environment, so they've gone crazy there, gobbling up natives. And we humans introduced them.

Bounties have been known to work, if they're managed well. They aren't always.

Wolves have had bounties and this has led to a huge decrease in their numbers. I am NOT in favor of this, though, because the bounties were on a native predator, not an invasive species. Wolves were supposed to be in the areas where officials impose these bounties. These were artificial controls on wolf populations, and they only have bad effects on the environment by messing with the food chain.

Hawaiian wildlife officials have been trying various methods to keep the mongoose problem from getting worse and spreading to other outlying islands-the last safe places for Hawaiian bird populations. You can do your part by following their instructions (don't feed them, don't transport mongoose on your boat, etc.). You can also get more involved-call them up and ask them how you can help!

If you could figure out a safe way to eat a mongoose (I haven't heard of people eating them)... If they're not a disease vector, like rats, then maybe you're on to something. Once you bbq something, it's usually edible, right? Who knows, maybe you've got a great business plan there. Marinated mongoose. Yum?

One thing I didn't understand from your comment was that you're concerned that if mongoose populations go down, then rat populations will go up.

Mongoose were originally plopped into cane fields to control rats (a marketing scam from Jamaica over a hundred years ago), but this has not worked. Mongoose hunt during the day, rats at night. The mongoose don't bother hunting the rats because there is so much other food for them to eat, that's way easier to catch.

Like eggs, and birds, and cat food.

Do mongoses live in Hawaii rainforests?
[Edited for readability]

Yes, mongoose do live in Hawaiian rainforests, but they are not native to the island. They were introduced by humans.

would you like to do my science project for me?

Editor's response: Very funny, Chynna. :P

My X and I were on Maui two years ago in June. We drove all over the island every day in order to see something besides Ka'anapali Beach and saw twelve mongooses in all. They were the only ground animal we saw, only saw one or two cardinals, and not another bird species. Sometimes greed causes problems, and I guess you could say that greedy sugar cane plantation owners are the ones responsible for the destruction of the wildlife on Maui. I'm sure that they are all dead and gone by now and could care less what happened to Maui. Greedy people tend to be that way.

what are the reason why you cant always predict what a new species will do in the wild

Animals are unpredictable. If they were totally predictable, they'd be easier to catch and eat :) But seriously, can you be a bit more specific about your question? Do you mean why do species act differently in different environments? Or are you asking about evolution?

Mongoose are not that smart. If you put a dead mongoose in a trap they go in the trap to eat their own. That is a fact because I have seen it with my own eyes.
Who do I write or call about a bounty on them?
There are so many on Maui now, on the golf courses and in Makena. I saw between 12 - 20 this morning. They are very mean and they hiss at you, they steal any food that you leave on a golf cart.
I would love to see the state put a bounty on them if they haven't already.
thank you

Here are some websites and organizations I would start with, and see what programs are currently available. Call you local Fish and Wildlife department to get the latest scoop and then talk to your political representatives about starting the appropriate program.

Mongoose on Hawaii

Hawaii Invasive Species Council

Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk project (HEAR)

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

USGS Invasive Species Information

USDA Invasive Species Website

"They are very mean and they hiss at you, they steal any food that you leave on a golf cart."

I call for a bounty on golf carts.

OK, just kidding... (although it seems to me humans are an invasive species too.)

Anyway, I have to say.. Gaahhhh!!!

My wife and I just visited Maui for the first time, and we noticed the lack of seabirds as well. Unfortunately, we were a couple of the tourists at the state park feeding the mongeese today...

Sorry -- we had no idea what they are. They looked like common weasels to me.

So anyway, in an effort to figure out what the hell they were, I looked up "Maui wildlife" and found this website. Very helpful, now I know, thank you. I promise we won't feed them again.

But they were so so cute!!

No, really, I'm serious, we won't feed them again. I promise!

Very funny, Mahan :P

But really, at least you noticed the lack of birds, and the abundance of mongoose. Then you went and looked them up. You live and you learn!

They're cute until they bite you :P

Great blog, we just got back from Waikiki and touring there I saw some critters (I even made a video for youtube...) being 90% certain that the critters we filmed were in fact mongoose in the wild...check it out...

Editor's Note: Thanks for sharing that video, Andras! Those were definately mongoose. Hope you weren't feeding them... :)

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