We’re diving deeper into the national parks with a spotlight on the people who connect with them, whether through a career, a lifestyle, a passion, or simply being because the park is in their backyard.
Danya Weber is a conservation biologist & artist based in Hawai‘i. Danya helped produce and model in the photoshoot for our ‘Hawai‘i Volcanic Wonderland’ collection and she has been a great sounding board and consultant to our team. We’d love to take the opportunity with our community to share Danyaʻs perspective on Hawai‘i, the land, and her career. If you’re interested in more about Danya please check out her Instagram and store @laulimahawaii as well as her website https://laulima.store/.
Q: We’re so excited to introduce you to the Parks Project community! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your relationship to Hawai‘i!
A: Aloha e, thanks for having me! I wear many hats: conservation biologist, graduate student, artist, and small business owner. What ties all of these titles together is my love for native Hawaiian species and ecosystems. Many people don’t realize that Hawaiʻi is the extinction and endangered species capital of the world, and I have made it my life’s mission to help preserve native Hawaiian biodiversity. This passion started while working with endangered birds on Kauaʻi, where I spent my days traversing through the cloud forest and searching for ʻakikiki and ʻakekeʻe, two Hawaiian honeycreeper species. Being amidst the lush vegetation, I began to learn to identify the plants around me and quickly realized that their names seemed so familiar. Many mele (songs) speak of these plants, and I had even danced hula to some of these when I was younger, yet I had NO idea who these plants were or what they looked like until I encountered them in the field. Something clicked in my brain at this realization. What resulted was a deeper connection to the forest and a solidified desire to protect its inhabitants. From this job, I went on to do ecological research, forest restoration, graduate school, and even started a small business for the sake of conservation. Now, I spend most of my time sharing educational content online (@laulimahawaii) to help raise awareness and build advocacy for native Hawaiian species.
Q: Starting with the environment, in which ways have Hawai‘i ecosystems shifted because of the tourism you’ve seen in the last decade +? How can we better understand precautions to take before & after traveling to the islands?
A: Tourism in Hawaiʻi is highly exploitative, of course, but I won’t get too into the weeds here (pun intended). An easily-observable effect of tourism is that it contributes to the spread of invasive species. I have seen invasive plants take over forests in just a matter of a few years, choking out native plants and depleting food sources for native wildlife. To prevent this from happening, simply scrub your shoes before/after every hike. Every time you hit the trail, make sure your shoes are free of mud or debris. Seeds and pathogens could be hiding in there! Also, PLEASE stay on trail. Native Hawaiian plants are super sensitive to trampling. When native plants are trampled, it opens up space for invasive species to grow. Yuck! Lastly, please don’t pick the flowers/ferns/etc. and definitely don’t take any plant material home with you. If you want to remember them, just take a picture.
Q: With Hawai‘i being the endangered species capital of the world, what intentional steps can folks make to help be part of this change?
A: Becoming educated/aware is key. That’s why I focus so hard on social media and educational content– this is an easily accessible and free way for people to learn about native Hawaiian species, their threats, and ways we can help them. If you can volunteer, that’s great, but I think donations to conservation non-profits are way more impactful in the end. If you can’t donate, you can totally help spread awareness and signal boost people/organizations doing conservation work. Another easy intentional step is to avoid labeling things as Hawaiian when they are not actually Hawaiian. For instance, plumeria, bird of paradise, monstera, and anthuriums were all introduced to Hawaiʻi from around the globe. The over-representation of these non-Hawaiian plants detracts from the truly Hawaiian flora and fauna and their stories.
Q: Can you tell us more about the native plants' relations to Hawaiian culture, and how your company Laulima supports conservation efforts throughout Hawaiʻi?
A: Totally. Native plants are used in medicine, tool-making, canoe-building, and more. They quite literally support life in Hawaiʻi and are greatly entwined with culture. Many native plants are even considered kino lau, which are manifestations of deities. Unfortunately, nearly 90% of Hawaiʻi’s native plants are threatened by extinction. With the loss of these plants, we also see a loss of the wildlife that depend on them (and vice-versa). Laulima supports the protection of Hawaiian plants and animals by donating 10% of our profits to conservation organizations throughout Hawaiʻi that actively preserve and restore native ecosystems.
Q: What are some projects you are currently working on or involved in related to the preservation of natural resources in Hawai‘i and how do you relate that back to your own artwork?
A: Currently, I’m very wrapped up in mosquito control for bird protection. A little background: Invasive mosquitoes were accidentally introduced to Hawaiʻi by whaling ships in the early 1800s. Since then, these mosquitoes have been spreading avian malaria, a disease that is often deadly for many of our native birds. Majority of Hawaiian honeycreeper species have gone extinct since the introduction of mosquitoes, and more are expected to go extinct within just a few years (like the ʻakikiki and kiwikiu). To reduce the spread of avian malaria, scientists are trying to implement a conservation tool that utilizes a naturally-occurring bacteria to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. This effective, non-GMO method could likely save over a dozen honeycreeper species. I have been making educational videos and lots of honeycreeper-themed products in efforts to raise awareness of this issue and to support these conservation actions. My artwork is largely created in response to current affairs and pressing issues for native species, really. For instance, endangered Hawaiian monk seals have been suffering from human-inflicted deaths, and I’ve been creating designs that celebrate these special creatures. Another example: 2023 was designated as the Year of the Kāhuli (Hawaiian land snail), so I have been working on a fall collection that celebrates these rare snails.
Q: What does your summer 2023 playlist look like?
A: Lately, I’ve really been loving long drives listening to Jenny Lewis’ Joy’All album and cooking dinner for friends to Dengue Fever’s discography. I will say though, I have been in a bit of a music streaming rut… new artist and album suggestions are more than welcome!
Q: What are the top 5 ways to ‘Leave it Better Than You Found it’ in Hawai‘i?
1. Do your research before visiting. Educate yourself on the culture and history of Hawaiʻi so you can considerately conduct yourself during your trip.
2. Respect the wildlife. Keep your distance and admire from afar. Don’t touch the turtles, stay at least 50 feet away from napping seals, and stay at least 50 yards away from the dolphins.
3. Always clean your gear before/after hikes to prevent the spread of invasive seeds or pathogens.
4. Don’t go on illegal hikes. There’s a lot of old trails in Hawaiʻi that are off-limits. A sign that says “KAPU” means you are entering an area where you shouldn’t be.
5. Support Native Hawaiian-owned businesses.