Maui’s Wild Side: Island Wildlife
When it comes to Maui wildlife, our island is remarkable both for what we have and what we don’t have. We DO have creatures that can be found no place else on earth; we DON’T have any land-based predators or snakes—with one tiny exception noted below.
The Hawaiian Islands, located some 2,300 miles from the nearest continent, are the most remote islands on earth. As a result, Hawaii is home to a vast number of endemic species—animals (and plants) that have evolved here over millions of years and are found nowhere else on the planet. Mammals, fish, birds, insects. . .some are thriving, but sadly, many are now extinct and others are threatened or critically endangered.
Is There Dangerous Maui Wildlife?
There are predators in our ocean, with sharks being at the top of the food chain—and I don’t mean McDonalds. But Hawaii’s land-based wildlife is pretty benign. There are no predators, so the most dangerous creature you could encounter on a hike through Maui’s wilderness might be a startled wild pig or a centipede—which can give a painful sting, but it won’t kill you. No one has ever been maimed by a centipede. We have no lions or tigers or bears (oh my); no poisonous snakes darting out from the bushes. And speaking of snakes. . .
Does Hawaii Have Snakes?
No. And yes. Hawaii has no indigenous snakes, and there are strict laws and programs in place to keep our islands snake-free. Incoming planes and ships are carefully inspected for such stowaways, and it is illegal to bring a snake into Hawaii or keep a pet snake. That being said, a snake is occasionally found on the loose. . .usually a creature that was smuggled in, kept illegally as a pet, then released into the wild by its irresponsible owner when they got bored with it. Recently, a six-foot boa constrictor was found on someone’s doorstep on the island of Oahu. Hello! Our only hope is to find and capture such abandoned snakes (and the despicable humans who released them) before they can establish a colony in the islands. The environmental ramifications to our fragile native species would be devastating.
Although we are fond of saying that Hawaii has no snake population, technically we do have one snake that has built a solid community in Hawaii: the tiny worm-like Brahminy Blind Snake. It was introduced to the islands sometime in the last century—probably hidden in the soil of imported potted plants. However, it is very small (often mistaken for an earthworm), blind, non-venomous, and poses no danger whatsoever, so we pretty much don’t think of it as a snake. No respect, the poor little thing! The poisonous Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake has also found its way to Hawaii from other tropical seas, although these snakes keep themselves well hidden underwater so you are not likely to encounter one. Even researchers who are looking for them can’t find them when they want to!
Here Are Some Interesting Creatures You Might See While Visiting Maui:
These small weasel-like animals can sometimes be seen darting across fields or streets. Mongoose were purposely brought to the islands in the 1800s in a now famously ill-fated and uninformed attempt to biologically control the rats in the sugar cane fields. The plan went terribly wrong because rats are nocturnal and mongoose are not, thus the two species rarely crossed paths. So, now in modern-day Hawaii, while the mongoose sleep at night, the rats merrily go about their business. And when the sun rises and the rats are safely back in their nests, the mongoose wake up and wreak havoc with many of the islands’ endangered native animals, invading bird nests and devouring turtle eggs.
Hawaiian Monk Seal
If you are on a Maui beach and come across what appears to be a large, fat, furry lump on the sand, consider yourself fortunate for you have just seen one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world—the Hawaiian monk seal. There are approximately 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals still existing in the wild. Most live in the remote northernmost islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, but about 300 live around the main Hawaiian islands. An adult Hawaiian monk seal measures about 7 feet in length and weighs 400-600 pounds. These adorable-looking seals (they can appear to be smiling) occasionally come on shore for rest, sun, and sleep—and they may look like they’re dead. Well-meaning spectators have been known to poke them or throw stones to see if they are alive. If you are lucky enough to see one, do not approach or disturb the seal. Aside from being potentially dangerous, Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species protected by Federal and State law. It is illegal to come closer than 100 feet of a seal, disrupt their behavior, or harass them in any way—in or out of the water. When it is necessary to pass by a monk seal that has hauled itself onto the beach in front of you, keep your distance—that is mandated by law. If it is a female monk seal with a pup (an extremely rare sight), be even more cautious and never come between them. Please respect these precious and highly endangered creatures. Here’s info on who to contact if you see a monk seal that appears injured or is being harassed by someone.
Green Sea Turtle (Honu)
Green sea turtles are the most common turtle found in Hawaii. They exist in many tropical waters around the world, but the Hawaiian green sea turtle (called honu locally; pronounced “HOH-noo”) is genetically distinct from all others. Honu are a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and conservation efforts have thankfully resulted in a steady population increase over the last three decades. An adult green sea turtle can weigh from 300 to 500 pounds and live 60 to 70 years. You might see honu on our beaches, or they might be found swimming with you in the ocean. As with the monk seals, look but don’t touch, as honu are diligently protected under Federal and State laws. Here’s info on who to contact if you see a turtle that appears injured or is being harassed by someone. Another number to call regarding turtles that appear to be stranded, sick, or in distress: Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute (808) 286-2549.
Every winter, the North Pacific Humpback Whales migrate down from northern waters to bask in the warm seas of the Hawaiian islands. Maui is tops for whale watching in Hawaii, and the sighting of a whale is truly an awesome experience. See my whale watching tips for more information on how to best see these magnificent creatures.
The nene (pronounced “NAY-nay”) is endemic to Hawaii and is our official state bird. Nene are believed to be descendants of the Canada goose but have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. This goose is very graceful and regal-looking, standing approximately two feet tall, and enjoying a vegetarian diet—so you are most likely to see them in grassy areas, golf courses, or on Mount Haleakala. You will most often see them in pairs, as they mate for life. The nene came very close to extinction. In fact, they were extinct on the island of Maui by the late 1800s, and by 1951 there were only 30 known nene geese in Hawaii. Yes, 30! Nene officially joined the federal list of endangered species in 1967, but thanks to aggressive conservation efforts, the nene population has increased and its federal status was upgraded from endangered to “threatened” in December 2019. Under Hawaii state law, the nene is still considered endangered, and many federal and state laws remain in place to protect it. There are now around 2,800 wild nene in Hawaii, with about 500 of those on Maui. (Haleakala National Park is home to more than half of those.) So far, the nene is a success story—like Hawaii’s green sea turtles, but unlike the Hawaiian monk seal which is rapidly heading toward extinction.
Well, what can I say? The lowly gecko deserves a paragraph in this Maui wildlife blog because it is so much a part of our island life, and you are very likely to see them here. These cute little guys (and gals—see below) are everywhere in the islands, and I am pleased to report that THEY are not endangered. Geckos are small lizards, about 4 inches long, with telltale fat little suction-like “toes” that allow them to climb walls and stick to ceilings. Geckos are completely harmless to humans, and we welcome them in our homes because they eat other critters we DON’T like so much, like termites, ants, mosquitoes, and cockroaches. Geckos are natural exterminators. There are several species of geckos in Hawaii, and some are female-only species, able to produce eggs and offspring without the fertilization of a male. (You go, girl!) If you see a gecko on a window with the light shining behind it, you’ll notice they are somewhat translucent and you can often see the eggs in their bellies. Another interesting gecko factoid: some species have the ability to detach their tail as a defense mechanism. So for instance, when my cat is chasing a gecko, its tail falls off (the gecko’s, that is) and keeps squirming on its own, drawing the cat’s attention while the gecko itself runs to safety. Eventually, the tail is regrown to face the cat another day! So, don’t be distressed if you see geckos in or around your accommodations, in restaurants, or elsewhere on Maui. Geckos are our friends, and we have grown accustomed to seeing them dangling from our walls and hearing their little chirping sounds in our homes.
Feral Cats and Chickens
Although not technically “wildlife” in the same manner as whales and turtles, feral chickens and cats are a familiar part of our island landscape and you are likely to see them around.
Feral chickens have co-existed with us in Hawaii for decades, the descendants of long-ago escapees from local farms and backyard chicken coops — and some with roots dating back to the chickens brought to the islands by the early Polynesians. They are generally too lean to be good for eating (even the feral cats don’t eat them), and they have no natural predators here. So for the most part they live out their lives in peace, scratching around for bugs in parks and parking lots. The little ones are awfully cute!
Unfortunately, all the Hawaiian islands have a large population of feral cats (sometimes called “community cats” because they are free-roaming and are not pets belonging to a particular owner). Most are likely descendants of pet cats that were abandoned or got lost long ago. They breed, the kittens are born in the wild, then they grow up and breed, more kittens are born in the wild, and on and on. The feral cats are generally not social with people and don’t want to be pet or picked up. Our best hope for controlling the cat population humanely is to spay/neuter them and return them back to the place they reside to live out their lives without creating more kittens. The Maui Humane Society has a program like this, and many compassionate hotels, businesses, and local residents care for “managed colonies” of feral cats that have been sterilized. If you see a cat that is missing the tip of one ear, that means it has been spayed/neutered as part of this humane program.
Enjoy and respect our precious island wildlife!
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Candy Aluli, Publisher
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