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Saving Paradise

Flooding in Kauai was so violent this spring that houses collapsed, sinkholes formed, and a herd of bison was washed away into the sea.

“For two weeks, only boats and helicopters could reach us,” says Uma Nagendra ’09, conservation operations manager and ecologist at Limahuli Garden and Preserve. “With all the damage, we’re thankful no people were killed.”

The disaster wreaked havoc at this branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where Nagendra nurtures habitat for rare specimens like the modest-looking Delissea rhytidosperma plant, and seabirds, including the band-rumped storm petrel. The landslides after the storm triggered a new sinking feeling, Nagendra says: Muddy torrents would likely smother vulnerable, vanishing plant species that hadn’t even been discovered yet. “Surveying after the spring 2018 floods reminded me uncannily of my dissertation work in tornado-damaged forests,” she says.

Even in calm weather, her life as a terrestrial plant ecologist in this remote paradise is rugged and fraught with strange enemies—like invasive rats or even fungus stored in shoe treads. Charting ecological treasure on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, means steep hillside climbs to hunt for the ripe fruits of endangered endemic plants or to remove large non-native species like Himalayan ginger.

Her passion for ecology began as a Scott Arboretum intern.

“The staff and learning about the plants had a huge impact on me,” she says. “It was a hidden gem of resources, expertise, and experiential learning.”

In addition, a formative summer research project with ecology professor José-Luis Machado helped her understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems and laid the groundwork for her career in plant ecology.

“Fires, hurricanes, landslides, and floods are natural components of ecosystem development,” she says. “But climate change is causing these long-term patterns to shift, which makes our plans a little more unclear.”

Today, Nagendra and the Limahuli staff continue to work at repairing damage from the floods.

“Cultural and ecological stories are embedded in the landscape here,” says Nagendra. “I’m lucky to be a part of its future.”