Once upon a time Pele the fire goddess, daughter of Moe-moea-au-lii the troublemaker and Haumea the Earth-mother, was travelling in search of a place to settle. She tried each of the Hawaiian Islands, one after the other, but whenever she sank her magic spade into the earth to dig a fire pit, she was too close to the sea and the waves came and extinguished the flames. Then, at long last, she found her dream home on Kilauea volcano in the southeast corner of the Island of Hawaii, sometimes called the Big Island.
Native Hawaiians are attached to their traditions, and still offer their goddess meat, fish, fruit and flowers, which they lay on the edge of Halemaumau crater, a sacred place in their island chain. This sanctuary is located inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which was created by a decree of the U.S. Congress in 1961 and in 1980 became a UNESCO biosphere reserve(1). The Park's status does not prevent the local people from practising their traditions there. Native Hawaiians who regularly go there do not have to pay the $5 entrance fee, they can pick the medicinal plants they need, and the women are allowed to purify themselves in the hot springs.
The Garden of Eden
About two million people visit the Park each year. There are excellent facilities for welcoming them. Exhibitions and film projections are held at a large Visitor Centre which also contains a mass of documentary material and proposes theme-related guided tours. A network of asphalted roads enables tourists to skirt the edge of Kilauea or travel down to the sea. The diversity of landscapes is amazing, and trails for walkers fan out in all directions. As the sun beats down, you pass by smoking, silver-grey craters, orange banks of sulphur, and mineral deserts and luxuriant forests where towering ferns mingle with the dark foliage of the trees. Visitors can climb 4,170-metre-high Mauna Loa (the "Great Mountain") that has been built up by a succession of lava flows and whose perfectly rounded summit is sometimes covered in snow.
This remote Pacific archipelago of 124 islands, islets and atolls, including eight main islands, emerged from the ocean 70 million years ago but it was not until 1,600 years ago that its first human inhabitants - Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands - arrived. The new settlers found plants and insects that had been carried to the islands by the wind, birds or sea, but no predatory land mammals. This was a decisive factor, for in the absence of predators, neither plants nor animals developed unnecessary systems of defence.
Before mosquitoes came to the islands as clandestine passengers on the first sailing ships, the small bird called the red apapane (Himatione sanguinea) had developed no immunity to malaria. Avian malaria now takes its toll. Mint and sage had no need of strong, protective odours before the introduction of goats. Park officials are doing their best to save the the state bird, the nene or Hawaiian goose (Branta sandviceasis), from extinction. American zoologist Stuart Pimm calculates that at least 101 bird species have disappeared from Hawaii since humans settled there.
Hawaii's isolation explains why the islands are home to an extraordinarily large number of endemic plants: 95 per cent of some 1,000 recorded species are found nowhere else in the world, but they are vulnerable to feral pigs (Sus scrofa) and other browsing animals. According to botanist Charles Lamoureux, director of Honolulu's Lyon Arboretum, about half the plants should be considered endangered, even if they do not yet figure on official lists.
There are also 5,000 species brought from outside, 25 of which are especially destructive. The worst offenders are the firetree (Myrica faya) from the Canary Islands, the strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) a tree from Brazil, the banana poka vine (Passiflora molissima) from South America, and "Coster's curse" (Clidemia hirta) a shrub from Central America. …