Sacred Hawaiian Tree Species Threatened by Deadly Fungus; Tourists Can Help Save It

More than 2 million ʻōhiʻa trees have been killed by ROD, according to the U.S. Forest Service

A deadly fungus threatens one of Hawaii’s most beloved and important species, the ʻōhiʻa tree, and those believed responsible for introducing the threat to the tree in the first place are now being asked to help save it — tourists.

The native ʻōhiʻa is sacred to Hawaiians as a cultural touchstone and ecological underpinning for the state’s lush forests and abundant wildlife, NBC News reports. The flowering evergreens that can tower to 85 feet comprise 80 percent of the state’s canopy, covering 1 million acres, and its nectar sustains birds and insects found nowhere else on Earth.

Now, public agencies and private citizens are trying to avoid biological and economic catastrophe by proclaiming war against a deadly fungal disease coined “rapid ʻōhiʻa death,” or ROD, that is swiftly destroying the trees. What’s more, invasive species like the miconia tree, native to North and South America and called the “green cancer” of Hawaii’s forests, are choking out the ʻōhiʻa.

Manakō Tanaka, a Hawaiian culture expert at the Oahu Visitors Bureau, said tourists can play an important role in staving off ROD, particularly on islands like Oahu, which has not yet been infected with the fungus. He said they should always make sure their shoes are clean and free of debris and seeds, and he urged visitors to stay away from areas marked off-limits to protect delicate ecosystems.

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