Asian Reporter, V31, #3 (March 1, 2021), page 7.
Deer native to India starve to death amid
drought in Hawai‘i
By Caleb Jones
The Associated Press
HONOLULU — Axis deer, a species native to India presented as
a gift from Hong Kong to the king of Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i 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 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 the 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."
The reefs around Molokai are getting more runoff and
sedimentation than expected and at least part of it is caused by
erosion from the deer, said Greg Asner, a Hawai‘i-based marine
Sedimentation that settles on the coral can kill it, said
Asner, who heads Arizona State University’s Center for Global
Discovery and Conservation Science. "Fish, invertebrates like
crabs, lobsters, you name it — they all rely on that same
The deer problem has persisted for years but is getting
worse, according to Glenn Teves, a Molokai native and the
University of Hawai‘i’s county extension agent for the island.
"They started moving into the farm area and are just raising
hell," said Teves, who owns a small farm on Molokai.
"It’s a perfect storm," he said. "What farmers did was they
started fencing off their areas, but not all farmers could
afford the fencing. So you may be protecting yourself, but
you’re just pushing the deer into the another farmer’s place."
Options for controlling the population include more hunting,
aerial sniping, and fencing that protects certain areas.
Sterilizing deer is difficult and expensive, and no one wants to
poison or eradicate them.
If healthy deer are killed, slaughter houses could process
the meat into hamburger for food banks and others in need, Teves
said. Even composting the carcasses of unhealthy animals has
been considered, he said, "so we can use it to bring the land
Hawai‘i governor David Ige recently issued an emergency
disaster declaration for Maui County, which includes Molokai, so
the state could "take immediate measures to reduce and control
the axis deer populations and to remove and dispose of the
Maui County’s mayor, mayor Michael Victorino, said the
disaster proclamation also can help unlock state and federal
funding to mitigate some financial losses. "Our agricultural
sector has sustained substantial pasture and crop damage from
axis deer in search of food," he said.
Maui county recently set aside $1 million to address the
problem, splitting it among Molokai and two other islands — Maui
and Lanai — where axis deer were brought in the 1950s and now
are damaging farms, ranches, and forests.
A bill last year to allocate another $1 million died in the
state legislature after pushback from Molokai residents who
feared the deer would be wiped out. State lawmakers are again
trying to pass a measure for funding to help manage the deer.
"They trample sea bird burrows, and their grazing and
trampling causes soil erosion, causing siltation of reefs that
support fish people eat as well, and ultimately, watersheds and
fresh water production," said Jeff Bagshaw, an outreach
specialist for the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife in
Hunting can help control the deer, but Bagshaw says hunters
tend to shoot bucks, which increases "harem size" and doesn’t do
much to decrease the overall population.
In 2019, fewer than 400 residents on Molokai were issued
hunting permits, he said. Statewide the number was about 10,600.
Nearly 1,500 permits were issued to non-residents, many who come
to Hawai‘i specifically to hunt, but coronavirus restrictions in
2020 meant far fewer people came to the state for leisure.
Because of the overpopulation, there is no daily bag limit on
deer nor a designated hunting season.
A number of other non-native species have become established
in the islands, including goats and pigs. According to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, the hoofed animals are among the
largest contributors to ecosystem degradation and extinction in
Hawai‘i, where plants and animals that evolved in isolation over
millions of years lack natural defenses against introduced
In addition to causing to environmental damage, the starving
deer population has become a public nuisance. Dead ones are
rotting around the island, including along shorelines where
people fish, swim, and surf.
Private landowners are responsible for disposing of dead deer
on their property, while state and county agencies have to clean
up dead deer on public lands.
And people who regularly drive on Molokai say the normally
skittish deer have become more brazen while seeking food and
water and pose a serious roadway hazard.
"Just driving down the highway, herds will suddenly decide to
cross, and so a lot of people have had their vehicles totalled
as a result of impacts with deer," said the Nature Conservancy’s