- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

HONOLULU — Deer can swim, but not very far. When they showed up for the first time on the Big Island of Hawaii, mystified residents wondered how they got there.

The island is some 30 miles southeast of Maui, where deer are plentiful.

Hawaii wildlife authorities think someone dropped a few from a helicopter on the northern tip of the island. And tracks along the southern coast indicate deer were pushed into the ocean from a boat and forced to paddle ashore.

Whether they arrived by air or sea, wildlife managers are anxious to eradicate them to avoid a repeat of the destruction seen on other islands where the deer ate through vineyards, avocado farms and forests where endangered species live.

Officials estimate that there are 100 deer on the northern and southern ends of the Big Island. A government-funded group is leading efforts to get rid of them before they breed.

“They didn’t get here by themselves, so the people who brought them over did so and have done it many times,” said Jan Schipper, the group’s project manager.

People have reported seeing deer on the Big Island for a while, but it wasn’t until a motion-sensor camera captured a photo of one last year that their presence was confirmed.

Axis deer, called chital in their native India, are similar in size to whitetail deer found in the continental U.S. Tigers and leopards keep axis deer numbers reasonable in India, but the deer population is growing 20 percent to 30 percent per year in Hawaii because there aren’t any natural predators except for humans.

The deer first came to Hawaii in the 1860s as a gift from Hong Kong to the monarch who ruled at the time, King Kamehameha V. They were first taken to Molokai Island.

In Maui, deer have caused $1 million in damage in the past two years for farmers, ranchers and resorts, according to a county survey. On Lanai, deer that eat everything from Hawaii’s native ebony tree, the lama, to a native olive tree and a now-extinct mint helped turn a rich native forest into a desertlike landscape so desolate people compare it to the moon.

Big Island hunters welcome the axis deer as a new source of meat.

There are no native land mammals in Hawaii except for a bat. Big Island hunters, who hunt to supplement their diet, say the deer should stay because the gift to the former king was for all of Hawaii.

Hunter Tony Sylvester suspects other hunters brought the deer from nearby islands to retaliate against government agencies and conservationists for converting vast tracts of hunting ground to forest restoration. He said he understands the concern for the environment and the need to protect the forest, but he said the deer can coexist if managed properly.

“Before you know it, everywhere is a pristine area and it’s more and it’s more and it’s more,” he said. “And our culture is slowly getting pushed away and pushed out.”

Sam Ohu Gon III, senior scientist and cultural adviser at the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, said the deer could threaten Big Island plants that are important for the environment and Hawaiian culture. Among those are the uhiuhi tree, which has a hard wood ancient Hawaiians favored for making weapons and tools, and the ohelo berry, which is used to make jam and is sacred to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes.

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