He mea hoʻopilikia ka puaʻa no ka nahele maoli

Image: Heavy pig damage in the forest of Maui

It is certainly well known that feral ungulates -- large browsing mammals such as cattle, goats, and pigs -- pose one of the most serious threats to the survival of native plants and animals in Hawai'i. Yet, isn't the pua'a (pig) a Hawaiian animal? Weren't pigs important in Hawaiian culture, and shouldn't they be allowed to roam free in the islands as a hunting resource? It turns out that these questions are more complex than they seem, and the story of pigs in Hawai'i is one worth telling.

To begin with, pigs of any sort are not native to Hawai'i. Imagining a pig (or indeed any large land mammal) swimming 2500 miles across the Pacific to get here makes it clear why our two native mammals are a seal, and a bat. Indeed, our native vegetation evolved for millions of years without the need to defend against grazing, rooting, or trampling, and had lost defense such as thorns or poisons.

It remains a popular misconception that pigs are native to Hawaiian forests and that ancient Hawaiians hunted them as a way to get meat. The first pigs were brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians as early as the fourth century AD. These pua'a, or Polynesian pigs, were much smaller than the feral European swine found today in Hawaiian forests. They were the product of a long and close domesticated relationship with people, and rarely strayed far from the kauhale (family compound) where they enjoyed familial status. Taro and sweet potato agriculture in Hawai'i is incompatible with free-roaming pigs, and the common presence of pa pua'a (pig pens) in a typical house site reflects the controlled nature of pig management in traditional Hawai'i.

One key factor during pre-contact times was that native forest then lacked large edible fruit such as guavas and mangos, both introduced after Western contact. Without such fodder, pre-contact pigs stayed close to their human source of shelter and food and did not stray far into surrounding forest. Clearly, pua'a carried strong cultural significance in traditional Hawai'i. Even the name of the traditional land division, ahupua'a, hearkens to the importance of pua'a as one of the resources offered during the annual Makahiki tributes. Pua'a, however, were but one land resource, produced by kanaka (people) and belonging to the wao kanaka (realm of people). But there were also the thousands of native plants and animals who represented the kinolau (physical forms) of the 'aumakua (ancestral deities). These resided in the upland forests, the wao akua (realm of the gods) and were held sacred as the kini akua (myriad gods). In the traditional Hawaiian experience, pua'a, as human-reared, were denizens of the wao kanaka and alien to these sacred forests. There are no pre-contact traditions of hunting pigs for meat (though rat-hunting with arrows was celebrated), and even the exploits of Kamapua'a describe pursuit of the demigod – not for sport or sustenance – but so that he might be punished for his wrong-doings.

All of this context changed following Cook. Following contact, European swine were introduced and over time, the Hawaiian pua'a interbred with and were displaced by these larger foreign animals. In quick succession, goats, sheep, cattle, and other ungulates followed. Introduction of this working stock, spread of western agriculture, decline of the native Hawaiian population, and a growing westernization of concepts of private land property contributed to the collapse of traditional Hawaiian land management systems, and with it, the careful control of animals such as pigs.

Over the 1800s, uncontrolled spread of introduced ungulates led to the watershed crisis of the late 19th century, and widespread fencing, feral animal control, and forest restoration were undertaken to try to reverse the damage. King Kal--kaua himself led a party into the head of Nuuanu Valley in the late 1870s to plant trees. The custom of recreational hunting evolved over the last two hundred years as Hawaiians assimilated western traditions dealing with these introduced feral animals. Today, hunting is not widely practiced in contemporary Hawaiian society – only two percent of the state's residents obtain hunting licenses – but it does occur as a modern practice, for recreation and to greater or lesser extent, for subsistence. The techniques are entirely western, using trained dogs to chase and bay the animals, which are then dispatched with knife or gun.

Today we face the continued destruction of native forest, and risk losing a huge and irreplaceable natural and cultural resource to uncontrolled feral animals. Feral pigs are widespread in the world, and in no danger of extinction. Pua'a were valuable cultural resources, but in ancient times were kept away from the wao akua, which held so much more of value to Hawaiians than a single species such as a pig. As we strive to strike a balance between protecting native Hawaiian plants and animals and our dwindling native forests and the more recent practice of game hunting, we need to reassert the huge value that the wao akua represents, and protect it and the kini akua for the descendants of the future.

No laila, e kū a e pale i ka nahele maoli no nā mamo Hawaiʻi.

[Therefore, stand and defend the native forests for the descendants of Hawaiʻi]

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Comment by ʻOhukaniʻōhiʻa on March 7, 2009 at 3:20pm
This was sent to me by Sandy:
Hunting is big sport here in Tennessee, during
the Hunting Seasons desginated by the TN Wildlife

Nothing wrong with that, but the difference is:
No native habitats/forestation are destroyed.
It is sport and a way to thin out the populations of
said animals: deer, turkey, etc. The prey are native
to the areas too.
If it were otherwise,
I for one would be very pro-active in trying to
halt such practices.

I don't think the cost of destroying
Hawaii's Native ecosystems and forests , are worth a feral hunter's
"right" to cause such problems. It is more they are
selfish and want only what they want, not what is best
in the long run for Hawaii's aina.

You have explained the origins of the feral animals
well, and that it was not part of Hawaiian culture, not a native
animal (s) , but that it was imported from the Western areas of the world.

Also, you have been very fair in stating that in some rare instances
the hunting is for sustenance.

I hope others who do not agree with our points of view
on this subject will come to understand very soon,
that the feral animals they hunt for sport,
are causing destruction to the fragile environment of
the aina in Hawaii. It isn't worth their selfishness.

The Aina Must Be Preserved.... Once it is gone, it's gone..

Mahalo for reading.....
Posted by Sandy on Sunday, October 07, 2007 - 7:37 AM

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