Friday, November 6, 2009

“Hang Loose, Mongoose”

“A generation ago Hawaiian cowboys, riding by a certain burial site in the northern grasslands of the Big Island, were in the habit of reining in, dismounting, and urinating on the grave. Buried here was "Mongoose" Forbes. In the 1870s Forbes sold mongooses to the managers of Hawaii's sugar plantations, on the grounds that this import from Asia would eat rats. (Norway rats had jumped ship in Hawaii and were raising Cain in the cane.) The disrespectful posthumous salute by the Hawaiian cowboys would have mystified Forbes. Like most of those men who have introduced alien animals to islands, Mongoose Forbes thought he was doing good (The Atlantic Monthly, August 1985).”
Actually everyone in Hawaii knows very well the misadventure of mankind introducing the mongoose into the Islands, but when I was told that the animal was active during the day (diurnal) and knowing that rats are nocturnal, it seemed unlikely anyone could have been that dim-witted. Well I was wrong.
Apparently, in 1872 someone by the name of W. B. Espeut introduced Indian Mongoose from Calcutta to the island of Jamaica to control its rising rat population. A subsequent paper published by Espeut, that praised the results, intrigued local Hawaiian plantation owners who, in 1883, brought 72 mongooses from Jamaica to the Hamakua Coast (maybe sold by “Mongoose” Forbes) here on the Big Island. These were raised and their offspring were shipped to plantations on Maui, Molokai and Oahu (Instant Hawaii).
(Legend has it when Kauai's shipment arrived one of the critters bit the dock hand that was unloading them. He bumped the shipping container they had arrived in knocking it into the ocean, therefore, the mongoose were never dispatched to perform their intended duties.)
Not everyone was convinced that importing mongooses was a good idea. In an 1883 issue of Planters Monthly, someone wrote, "Whether it would be wise to introduce the animal to these Islands may be a question. It would be important to first learn more of the nature of the creature, for they may prove an evil." ( Smart man, but unfortunately, this anonymous writer's advice was not taken.
The Mongooses did eat rats, it turns out, and did help slightly in the sugar cane fields, but came nowhere near controlling the rat population. And worse, Hawaii does not have any natural predators of the mongoose.

As in Kipling's Jungle Book character Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the devil-eyed cunning critter is famous for taking on venomous snakes like king cobras. But that is not why the ferret-like mongooses are sometimes referred to as the most dangerous animal in the world. That title was earned when it became clear that the mongoose is unparalleled when it comes to destroying native species. A fact learned the hard way in Hawaii. (Naturally Speaking)
Nowadays, mongooses rule every Hawaiian island except Lana'i and Kaua'i, and even there it may only be a matter of time. Recently, mongooses have been sighted on Kaua’i. Almost all the mongooses on the Hawaiian Islands today are descended from the original ones brought over by W.B. Espeut from Calcutta to Jamaica (Naturally Speaking).
Mongooses love eggs and they will throw eggs against rocks to break them open and to eat them. They also prey on fledgling and adult native Hawaiian birds, not to mention endangered sea turtle eggs and hatchlings (Naturally Speaking).

What has been truly sad is that the mongoose has diminished the number of the Hawaiian State Bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian Goose) to almost extinction.
About the only good thing that can be said about them in these Isles is that I learned that mongooses are monogamous, and that when the mate of a mongoose dies the survivor will never mate again.
And it case you were wondering -- yes, mongooses is the preferred plural form although mongeese is acceptable. Just be glad you are not a non-native English speaker trying to learn this confusing language, and if you are, well….my thoughts are with you.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting... the look like a cross between a weasel and a squirrel! I am glad they are not around our house!


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