BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – How far are we willing to go to protect “native” species? Would you be willing to put your body on the line? If there was a native Hawaiian tapeworm, would you be willing to serve as its host? If it was an endangered Hawaiian tapeworm, you may be able to get a government grant to become critical habitat for the parasite. Nobody would be able to touch you without a permit or an environmental assessment.

Actually, there is a native Hawaiian parasite of plants, called dodder (Cuscuta sandwichiana), that hangs from trees and shrubs and smothers them to death and sucks out their juices.  The dodder drapes over its host with its green and orange-tan filaments like a net, until all you see is the dodder. Large areas of trees, including o’hia, are destroyed by dodder.

This can create a dilemma for native species advocates.  If the dodder is growing on a native tree, such as the o’hia, do you let it kill the tree, or do you kill the dodder?

I suppose the answer to that depends on whether you value the o’hia more than the dodder. But given the political correctness to protect native ecosystems, environmental managers may have trouble deciding on which native species to save, the resource or the parasite.  After all, parasites are a normal and necessary part of the environment. All ecosystems need predators, parasites, competitiion, and all the rest for the cycle of life and death to go round.

But what if the tree the dodder is smothering is nonnative? Let’s say the native dodder is growing on a nonnative ornamental bush, such as rose bush, or a nonnative fruit or ornamental tree, such as a mango or lychee. Should we kill the native dodder or let it kill its nonnative host?

According to the nativists, the answer is clear. The native parasite must prevail.

Now this may seem odd to anyone who does not share the nativists’ bias. We all have some sympathy for endangered species. And some of us extend that sympathy to nonendangered native species. But there is more to consider than nativity.

When we weed our gardens or forests, we have to make decisions on what to save and what to weed. We tend to save those species that are resources for their food or fuel value, environmental services, or beauty. Unfortunately, the politically correct thing to do these days is to save the native species since nativity trumps all other considerations, including resource value.

It seems that it’s more important to be local than anything else.

And being local is really what “native” means. The term “native” is not scientific. It is political. And in Hawaii, “native” means any species that was in Hawaii prior to Western contact.

Note that species brought to Hawaii in the past by native Hawaiians are considered fine, while those brought to Hawaii by western cultures are considered bad. The pigs the Hawaiians brought are considered okay, but the European pigs are bad. The milo, or white mangrove, that the Hawaiians brought to protect the shoreline is fine, but the red mangrove brought to Hawaii 100 years ago to protect the coastline is bad.

Of course, Hawaii is a chain of volcanic islands, and everything had to get here from somewhere else. Past civilizations and cultures immigrated to these islands bringing with them plants and animals.  It’s a natural, human-mediated process of species translocation that has been happening for millenia.

However, nativists consider human mediated introductions as somehow bad, even unnatural, unless a “native” culture had introduced the species. Clearly, this is not a scientific approach, with a double standard on who can introduce species, and an arbitrary cutoff date for species to be considered “native”.

Obviously, there should be no distinction between introductions by “native” cultures and those cultures that have colonialized these areas over the past few hundred years. After all, these “native” cultures were themselves colonists when they arrived, displacing another culture that had arrived before them. And each immigrant culture brought its plants and animals, and took from the environment whatever resources were available.

So, in the long run, there is really no difference between “native” cultures and immigrant cultures. Likewise, there is really no difference between “native” species and immigrant species.

Nevertheless, a distinction is being made by nativistic environmental managers that not only favors the “native” species, but actively seeks out and destroys the immigrant. Our culture is currently obsessed with immigration issues, both human and nonhuman. The locals are afraid of being displaced by the immigrants. Fences are erected and raids are conducted to fight illegal immigration. It makes no difference whether the immigrant is an animal, plant, or human.

Xenophobia, or a fear of foreigners, is not new. At times of stress, local people attack the newcomers. It’s a matter of identity and control. When times are good, immigrants are welcomed and appreciated for the diversity they bring. When times turn bad, people get defensive, possessive, and attack their immigrant competition. They even attack everything of foreign origin in the environment, a bio-xenophobia.

However, anti-immigrant attacks have a cost.  An immigrant culture that has become part of the bigger culture cannot be expelled without tearing that bigger culture apart with civil wars and ethnic cleansings.  Likewise, immigrant species cannot be eradicated from an environment without an environmental war and species cleansings, which will tear the environment apart.

Western cultures that at one time invaded and colonialized new lands and destroyed “native” species in their wanton and short-sighted destruction of the land and its natural resources are now poisoning and infesting the environment to kill the species they had brought to those lands. The short-sighted, wanton destruction is the same. Only the target has changed.

Getting back to the parasite dodder, there are currently two varieties in Hawaii. One is native, the other an immigrant (Cuscuta campestris). They both look alike, and have the same destructive effect on their hosts.

If you saw a valuable tree being suffocated by dodder, would you save the tree if it was an alien dodder and a native tree, but keep the dodder if it was a native dodder and an alien tree? Or would you intuitively realize that the resource is more valuable than the parasite, regardless of the “nativity” of either, and save the tree?

If you would intuitively save the tree, you are in good company. Many people do not share the extreme nativistic bias of the invasion biologists. While most people agree that we need to be sensitive to the needs of native species, and native cultures, all but zealots realize that there are limits to how far we should take this native supremacist agenda. Indeed, there is more that counts than just where something allegedly comes from.

Government environmental managers have no plans stop the common native dodder parasite. But they do have plans to kill strawberry guava, African tulips, banyan trees, monkey pod trees, endangered veiled chameleons, Jacksons’ chameleons, endangered Mouflon sheep (which eat dodder), all frogs, cattle egrets, peacocks, and other immigrant species to prevent competition with native species and preserve native ecosystems.

Of course, all this killing is to no avail when pollution, development, resource exploitation, climate change, and bulldozer and chemical based agriculture continue to redefine the environment. For humans to call any other species “invasive” is the pot calling the kettle black. Indeed, humans are the root cause of all these “invasions”. We use immigrant species as scapegoats.

So maybe humans should host the native Hawaiian tapeworm. Of course, the argument could be made that only “native” Hawaiians are the proper hosts. But I bet the tapeworm doesn’t care.