Native ecosystems, species underpin Hawaiian culture


Samuel M. 'Ohukani'ōhi'a Gon, III speaking at TEDx Maui

Samuel M. ‘Ohukani’ōhi’a Gon, III speaking at TEDx Maui

Dr. Samuel M. ‘Ohukani’ōhi’a Gon, III is the Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i, and a leading expert on Hawaiian ecology.

This year he is one of the four keynote speakers at the annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) meeting, which is being held next week in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Mongabay recently interviewed him to find out more about Hawaii’s unique environment and culture.

Interview with Samuel M. ‘Ohukani’ōhi’a Gon, III

Mongabay.com: For those ATBC participants who won’t have the chance to leave Honolulu, what local activities do you suggest?

Samuel Gon: There are many public trails that take you into the native forests of O’ahu. Try one of them! There are protected marine areas along our shores—grab snorkel and fins and take a look! Our Waikīkī Aquarium is easy to visit. The Bishop Museum is a wealth of natural and cultural information.

Mongabay.com: You have over 35 years of experience in Hawaiian ecology; the majority has been spent working as a scientist at The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. Who or what inspired you to make ecology and conservation the focus of your life’s work?

Samuel Gon: I was always one of those kids to be found in the nearest stream turning over stones to see what was living under them. I never outgrew that fascination with the living cohabitants of our ecosystems, and take delight in exploring regional biodiversity wherever I am. My parents were very encouraging of that, as were my teachers, and there were key knowledgeable individuals who tolerated by presence and questions and from whom I soaked everything I could, reading what they recommended I read, and meeting others that formed their circle of peers in Hawaiian natural history and conservation.


Kalalau Valley on Kauai

Mongabay.com: When it comes to the future of conservation, what makes you hopeful?

Samuel Gon: The growing awareness of people to the uniqueness and beauty of Hawaiian native species and ecosystems, the number of young people entering into conservation, and the success stories identifying important areas and establishing programs of protective management for them and therefore for all of us.

Mongabay.com: You’re one of four keynote speakers for the 2015 ATBC meeting, the theme of which is “Resilience of Island Systems in the Context of Climate Change: Challenges for Biological and Cultural diversity and Conservation.” What are some of the most salient challenges Hawaii faces in the context of climate change?

Samuel Gon: Sea level rise, drought and increase in wildfire, disruption of finely-tuned ecosystem-species relationships disrupting ecosystem processes, spread of invasive species in the wake of stress/disturbance that changes in climate will induce.


Sea turtle off Maui

Mongabay.com: I read that you have over a decade of experience studying oli (traditional Hawaiian chant) and hula with Kumu John Keolamaka’āinana Lake. What are your thoughts on conservation as it applies to Hawaii’s arts and culture?

Samuel Gon: Natural systems and native species are foundational in Hawaiian culture. The material, intellectual and spiritual underpinnings of Hawaiian culture are comprised of the richness of the natural world.

Mongabay.com: In 2014, you were honored with the impressive designation of “Living Treasure of Hawai’i” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i. What’s next for you?

Samuel Gon: Behaving myself (being a Living Treasure means I should be a good example to others, doesn’t it? 😉 ) and carrying on in everything I do. The honor is wonderful, but it certainly isn’t an end. If it is an encouragement to carry on, I will take it as such, but as one of the younger individuals to receive such an honor, I realize I have many years of continuing work to realize, and several lifetimes of learning to continue to engage in and share with others.

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