‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight

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Kinohi is gently stroked by keeper Karla Michelson to help prepare him for future handling.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009, was a pivotal day for the management of the ‘alala flock…and for the management of one particular bird: studbook #33, better known as Kinohi.

Early on Tuesday morning, staff at the Maui Bird Conservation Center packed up Kinohi into his specially modified bird carrier for the start of a momentous journey that would take him on a flight nearly 3,000 miles across the Pacific. The mission is an ambitious attempt to ensure that Kinohi’s valuable genes are passed on to future generations of ‘alala, hopefully helping to guarantee the survival of the species.

The ‘alala (or Hawaiian crow) is one of the most endangered species on the planet; its population is currently thought to be extinct in the wild. Only 60 birds remain, all maintained at the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program’s centers on Maui and at Keauhou (on the Big Island). With such a low population size, the gene pool is limited, and every bird’s genes are incredibly valuable. Because Kinohi is behaviorally compromised and does not recognize himself as an ‘alala, he has never shown any interest in breeding with females. Time is running out for Kinohi to pass on his genes – he was hatched in 1990 and is now entering the twilight of his years – and the only opportunities now lie in cutting-edge animal science.

Kinohi (and co-author Sharon) received VIP treatment as passengers on the flight from Maui to San Diego, thanks to the ongoing program support of Hawaiian Airlines. Belying his usual cantankerous demeanor, Kinohi was relatively mild-mannered en-route and seemed oblivious to the fuss, perhaps due to the sedatives that had been prescribed for the flight.

Upon arrival, Kinohi was installed in his aviary at the Wild Animal Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center. Lead Hospital Keeper Jeff Fuller was there to welcome Kinohi, presenting the opportunity to discuss Kinohi’s idiosyncrasies and finer points of husbandry. After 30 days of quarantine, Kinohi will be transferred to an off-exhibit aviary at the Wild Animal Park’s Bird Breeding Center. Crucially, soon after his arrival, Barbara Durrant of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Reproductive Physiology Division, will begin the intricate work of beginning to collect semen samples for storage in the Frozen Zoo. It is hoped that Kinohi’s sperm can eventually be used in the artificial insemination of female ‘alala once the techniques have been refined. See previous post, Massages for ‘Alala.

Although it is fully expected that Kinohi will live many more happy, productive years at the Bird Breeding Center, in the event of Kinohi’s death, staff at our Wildlife Diseases Laboratories are prepared to perform a rapid necropsy so that his tissues will be as fresh as possible for cultivation in the labs of the Genetics Division. It is hoped that the complex process of tissues culture will be successful and the Frozen Zoo will again be utilized to store the cells for posterity. Similarly, his gonad tissue will also be collected. See previous post, Preserving Hawaiian Bird Cell Lines.

In conclusion, the transfer of Kinohi to the Wild Animal Park and the subsequent effort to maximize his genetic potential represents an exciting collaboration between the Institute for Conservation Research, the Wild Animal Park’s Bird Department, the two vet departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Hawaii Division of Forests and Wildlife. In due time we all hope to experience the sight of Kinohi’s genes, represented and embodied in future generations of ‘alala, flying over the canopy of Hawaii’s native forests.

Sharon Belcher is a research associate and Richard Switzer is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo‘s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.