Thursday, March 28, 2013

Did The Mongoose Idea Work for Sugar?

OK - in reading this, remember, this discussion is not in defense of the mongoose – nor whether the importation was a good idea.

Rather, it is addressing the age-old urban legend about the apparent conflicting activity habits of each.  I repeatedly hear that mongoose don’t kill rats – primarily because their activity times are different.

Contrary to the diurnal (behavior characterized by activity during the day and sleeping at night)/nocturnal (behavior characterized by activity during the night and sleeping during the day) conflict between the mongoose and rat – and apparent loss of the predator-prey relationship - reporting at the time of the introduction of the mongoose state sugar producers saw a marked reduction in the pesky rats in their plantations.

Pacific Sugar Mill on the Hāmākua Coast had the distinction of introducing the first mongoose into Hawaiʻi. In 1883, WH Purvis imported them from India and Africa for rat control on the plantation.

Later, Joseph Marsden ('Mongoose Joe,') former Commissioner of Agriculture, is credited with expanding the import.  “He brought the little animal from Jamaica, where it had the reputation of a good rat exterminator”.  (Hawaiian Gazette, March 16, 1906)

“At that time there were considerable portions of our cane fields that were so badly damaged by rats that they were not worth harvesting and now rat eaten cane is almost unknown.”  (HA Baldwin – Maui News, August 5, 1921)

“The ravages of rats in the cane fields of Hāmākua previous to the introduction of the mongoose were so alarming as to cause fears that cane culture would have to be abandoned.  As soon as a cane field was planted it seemed to be a new breeding ground for the rats, which appeared to exist by the hundreds of thousands.”  (Evening Bulletin, December 5, 1898)

“The next importation was by the Hilo planters, who in 1883 sent Mr. Jonathan Tucker to Jamaica in the West Indies to procure mongoose for them. Mr. Tucker returned with 72 mongoose in good condition, which were liberated in the cane fields in Hilo.  They soon increased in numbers, and the ravages of the rats correspondingly diminished.” (Evening Bulletin, December 5, 1898)

“The planters of Hāmākua, hearing of the good work done by the mongoose in Hilo, decided to import some on their own account (in 1885.”)  (Evening Bulletin, December 5, 1898)

"Many people feel that the mongoose has failed as an enemy of the rat, but the records, both in Hawaiʻi and Jamaica, indicate that the rats have been reduced to an appreciable extent by the mongoose.”  (Maui News, August 12, 1921)

“Evidence in favor of the mongoose may be seen today in Kauaʻi.   The mongoose has not been introduced on that island, and the rat menace is in general more serious there than it is with the other islands of Hawaiʻi.”  (The Garden Island, August 23, 1921)

In less than two years after the importation of the mongoose, the rats were so diminished that it was and is now a rare thing to see a stick of cane that is eaten, and the plantations have so extended their plantations that they now grind nearly all the year, giving employment to double and treble the number of hands with a corresponding benefit to the trade of Honolulu.  (Evening Bulletin, December 5, 1895)

“When they set the mongoose to work he soon cleaned the cane fields of mice and then went for the rats which speedily met a similar fate.  Having exterminated all those he next went for eggs next for chickens and then he went for the henroosts and fowls.”  (The Independent, April 25, 1898)

“There is no doubt that the mongoose has saved the planters of Hāmākua thousands of dollars. In former years it was no uncommon thing to see one-fourth and even one-half of the cane left on the fields, the rats having rendered that portion unfit for grinding by eating the stalks near the ground.” (The Garden Island, August 23, 1921)

“The drawback to the Mongoose is that he does not confine his menu to rats but varies it with all kinds of barnyard fowl and eggs and also ground-nesting game birds form a good part of his dietary. Another regrettable thing about him is that he is very fond of our field lizards or skinks which have an important part to play in the ‘balance of nature.’” (HA Baldwin – Maui News, August 5, 1921)

“These lizards feed on ticks among other things and since the advent of the Mongoose and the consequent scarcity of lizards ticks have become a bothersome pest to stock raisers. Ticks, however, in sufficient quantities are said to be deadly to the Mongoose and to keep him down in numbers.” (HA Baldwin – Maui News, August 5, 1921)

“The lizard is the natural enemy of bugs and insects including mosquitoes, as he lives on nothing else and never in any way harms plant life.  When I first came to the Kona district in 1886, the country was well stocked with lizards and all kinds of fruits were growing in pro fusion.”  (Coerper – Maui News, April 15, 1905)

“Kitchen gardens contained cabbages, tomatoes and all other varieties of vegetables which were free from insect pests; and while the leaf hopper could be found in the canefields he was kept so well in check by the lizard that he never caused any trouble.”  (Coerper – Maui News, April 15, 1905)

“But later on when the mongoose came, he commenced a campaign of destruction on the lizard with the result that the lizard decreased and the pests increased to such an extent that today almost nothing can be raised in the district and fruit trees that used to bear a heavy crop of fruit are now barren and pest ridden.”  (Coerper – Maui News, April 15, 1905)

OK, again, before anyone goes off on the consequence to native birds, etc, remember the context of this summary –it’s about whether mongoose rid rats from the cane fields.

I prepared this because, until looking closer into it, I, too, believed that because of the diurnal/nocturnal relationship, they never saw each other.  However, based on the reports back then, from the sugar planters’ perspective, it worked; damage due to rats gnawing at the sugar was reduced to a level of nominal impact.

Unfortunately, like many other bad decisions that were made before adequate analysis of unintended consequences, the mongoose is negatively impacting many other areas in our Islands … and, except for some remnant operations, sugar (and its problems with rats) is effectively gone.

© 2013 Hoʻokuleana LLC

1 comment:

  1. Great insights, thanks for sharing your findings:

    See also this review article by Warren Hays and Sheila Conant, "A Worldwide Review of Effects of the Small Indian Mongoose, Herpestes javanicus (Carnivora: Herpestidae)" in Pacific Science (1997), available at