Image: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Technology Helps San Diego Zoo to Save the Hawaiian Hawk


The Animal Facts Editorial Team


June 7, 2023 4:54 pm


Nashville Zoo, Tennessee, The United States

Miniature GPS transmitters are being deployed for the first time in an effort to further conservation of the endangered Hawaiian Hawk or 'Io. Over 40 wild hawks are now being tracked as they move across the island. The work forms part of a collaborative effort to conserve both the 'Io and one of their main prey species - the ‘alalā.

Researchers with San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Forestry and Wildlife are collaborating on this effort as part of a large-scale GPS tracking program to better understand the extent to which ‘io move across the island and how they utilize different habitats. Scientists will use the insights gained from the research to conserve this raptor and glean critical insights to aid in the future reintroduction of the ‘alalā, also called the Hawaiian crow, to their native habitats. This will help both the ‘alalā and ‘io to coexist in their native habitats.

Cutting edge technology including a lightweight, solar-powered GPS transmitter from Cellular Tracking Technologies is fitted using a custom backpack harness to the hawks. This will naturally fall off over time. While attached these trackers use the cellular network to send data on the location of the hawks to researchers.

Since mid-2022 when efforts to track these birds began over 270,000 points of location data have been gathered. These cover rural neighbourhoods, forests and pastures.

“This project is a perfect example of how recent advances in technology are driving the fields of ecology and conservation biology,'' said James Sheppard, Ph.D., recovery ecology scientist at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “It’s taken until now for wildlife telemetry devices to be miniaturized and made lightweight enough to be safely deployed on a bird such an ‘io. For the first time, we’re acquiring hard, rigorous, scientific data about the specific ecological needs of this important species. We are truly in the golden age of wildlife tracking.”

'Io are facing a range of threats in their native habitat including the loss of vegetation and the ongoing impact of climate change. With little study on the species San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance partners closely with the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, to learn how to mitigate key ‘io conservation challenges.

Hawaiian hawks play an important role in the ecology of their habitat. They serve a key role in helping to reduce the numbers of invasive rodents.

Data from this study will also fine-tune ‘alalā reintroduction techniques to maximize ‘alalā survival. The ‘alalā is the last of five crow species which were endemic to the Hawaiian islands. A range of invasive species have driven this species to extinction in their habitat. An intense breeding and restoration program is hoping to restore this species in their habitat.

The Alalā Project is a partnership between the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.  

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Our Favourite Hawaiian Hawk Fact!

Hawaiian Hawk are the only natural hawk species found on the island of Hawaii. These animals are viewed as a symbol of royalty and as an ‘aumakua—a visible manifestation of a family or personal god.

Image: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

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