County workers got quite the surprise last week when they discovered a live, three-and-a-half-foot ball python near the Hilo landfill. The snake was safely turned over to the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture (HDOA), but the incident left many people asking: do we have snakes in Hawaiʻi? The short answer is…sort of!
Before colonization by humans, Hawaiʻi was a bird paradise, lacking many of the types of animals found elsewhere in the world. Due to the remote nature of these volcanic islands, organisms had to travel over 2,000 miles by wind or sea to reach these shores, and then survive and reproduce in a strange and sometimes harsh new environment. The establishment of a species was a rare event, estimated to happen only once every 10,000-100,000 years.
Land-dwelling reptiles were among those excluded by the perilous journey (and their physiology) from starting new lives in Hawaiʻi. The geckos and lizards that are common visitors to our windows and rock walls arrived with the assistance of humans. Fortunately, their legless cousins didn’t make the trip, and laws were eventually put into place to prevent the introduction of snakes, recognizing the threat to our native birds.
However, as people and cargo move through Hawaiʻi, there is always a risk of new introductions. For the last several decades, Hawaiʻi has feared the accidental introduction of the brown tree snake, which has wreaked havoc on Guam since their arrival in 1952. With populations estimated at 13,000 snakes per square mile, the brown tree snake has driven seven bird species in Guam to the brink of extinction and caused millions of dollars in damage to the electrical infrastructure. Concerted efforts to prevent the movement of the notorious stowaway have been highly successful – only one snake made it to Hawaiʻi in recent years– but thousands of snakes continue to be deflected at Guamanian airports annually. And while the risk from Guam is a high priority, snakes from elsewhere continue to show up in Hawaiʻi: the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture estimates that over 100 snakes were collected from 2000-2013, and high profile snake discoveries made the news two dozen times in the last decade. This most recent was just the first on the Big Island since 2014, when a gopher snake was found in a shipping container in Keaʻau. Last year a small boa constrictor was found in a shipping container from California that was being unloaded in Honolulu.
But stowaways likely account for a minority of the snakes in Hawaiʻi. Most recent captures were in residential or natural areas, far from ports and often at sizes indicating they escaped or were released after spending some time in captivity here. A call from an alarmed Keaʻau homeowner in 2009 led to the discovery of a 6’ boa constrictor in a garage. In 2011, a 9’ boa constrictor was captured by hunters in Waipahu, Oʻahu, and in 2013 a pedestrian found a rainbow boa cruising through the streets of Chinatown. Just last year, a jogger found the body of a 5’ boa near a nature preserve in Kauaʻi, just months after a live 7’ boa was found in a Nuʻuanu driveway. A 4-foot ball python was captured on a coffee farm in Kaʻanapali, Maui, in 2016.
Snakes aren’t the only large reptiles that have turned up in odd places in Hawaiʻi. In the 1980s, two caimans were found in the Nuʻuanu reservoir, and in 1991 two dead alligators were discovered in different locations on Oʻahu. In the last two years alone, two six-foot long iguanas were spotted and captured in Waimanalo on Oʻahu. New species of lizards that can pose a serious environmental threat, like bearded dragons and veiled chameleons, continue to be reported across the islands.
All of these species share something in common: they’re very popular in the pet trade. Non-venomous boas and pythons are two of the most popular kinds of pet snakes and are among the most common showing up in Hawaiʻi. These animals are likely not accidental introductions, but were intentionally smuggled or shipped to Hawaiʻi in violation of state law. While snakes can make great, low-maintenance pets for responsible pet owners in other places, the risk to Hawaiʻi’s already threatened ecosystems is far too great to risk the chance of any snake species establishing in the wild.
To encourage misguided reptile enthusiasts to do the right thing, Hawaiʻi has offered an ongoing amnesty program for anyone who turns in an illegal animal. The no-questions-asked policy allows individuals to drop off any prohibited animal for free and without fear of punishment at any zoo, Humane Society, or HDOA office in the state. This is a good deal considering that importing or owning a snake can lead to up to 3 years of jail time and fines of $200,000! Pet owners are encouraged to take advantage of the amnesty program and to never, ever release a snake or other reptile into the wild. Healthy animals will not be euthanized but will be sent to an appropriate facility on the mainland.
All Hawaiʻi residents should be aware of the threat snakes pose to our native ecosystems and report any sightings of strange reptiles to 643-PEST. In fact, snakes are the only invasive species for which you should call 911! Oh – except for one: the Brahminy brown snake, a shy 6” North American native that has established in some parts of Hawaiʻi. It looks and acts like an earthworm, living in moist leaf litter and loose soil and under rocks and logs. This tiny non-venomous critter feeds only on introduced ants and termites and has not been observed to negatively impact the Hawaiian ecosystem. But let’s all work together to make sure this guy’s larger cousins never make Hawaiʻi a permanent home!