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Back from the Brink

"In 1985, only 12 Pritchardia schattaueri were thought to exist in the wild. Today there are well over 600 of various ages growing at the Conservancy's Kona Hema Preserve."

Mel Johansen
The Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve Manager

By Mel Johansen

In 1960, as manager of actor Jimmy Stewart’s Hawai‘i Island ranch, George Schattauer stood and watched as a tractor cleared an area for pasture and macadamia nuts in what is now Ho‘omau ranch in the Pāpā ahupua‘a of south Kona.

He was soon astonished to see what looked like a palm tree near the area where the machines were working. Deciding to get a closer look, he walked up to the giant tree (well over 100 feet tall) and suddenly realized he was looking at a rare native palm.

In 1969, seeds were sent to the Honolulu Botanical garden on O‘ahu. There, plant experts determined it was a Pritchardia, a genus of palm called loulu in Hawaiian. More commonly known as Pacific Island fan palms, the genus Pritchardia consists of 27 species, nearly all of which are unique to Hawaiʻi. As the islands’ only native palms, loulu were important to Hawaiians. The fronds were used for thatching ceremonial structures, while the fruit (hāwane) was highly edible—tender and delicious when gathered at just the right ripeness. For one species of Hawaiian honeycreeper, the ʻula-ʻai-hāwane (red bird that eats loulu fruit), loulu was its main sustenance.

After careful comparison, botanists determined that Schattauer’s find was a new species of Pritchardia, distinct from others known across the Hawaiian archipelago. It was unique to Hawaiʻi Island and to the South Kona area. It was named Pritchardia schattaueri in honor of its discoverer.

In 2001, more seed was collected by the Kona Palm Society from the same trees Schattauer had saved from the bulldozer some 40 years before. The Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden ensured their propagation. A partnership was formed between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy to reintroduce the endangered loulu seedlings in significant numbers at the Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve.

The Kona Hema site was selected for its close proximity to the founder seed trees, and also because the entire 8,000-acre preserve was fenced and free of hooved animals—something that had never been done at this scale in the Kona landscape. The site provided ideal conditions for protecting an out-planted endangered species and ensuring its survival into the future.

Since the initial planting, many more seeds have been collected and planted. Because they came from a very small population, it was important to have as much genetic variability as possible, so the founder tree of each seedling was tracked and a GPS point recorded.

In 1985, only 12 Pritchardia schattaueri were thought to exist in the wild. Today there are well over 600 of various ages growing at Kona Hema Preserve—some more than 15 feet tall.

In 2005, George Schattauer passed away at the age of 84. But thanks to his interest in preserving this critically endangered species, Pritchardia schattaueri lives on.
 

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