It’s fitting that the mailbox at 172 Ku‘umele Street is painted with a bright green gecko, because it’s in this suburban Kailua neighborhood that the orange-spotted day gecko (Phelsuma guimbeaui) first appeared in the 1980s. The owners of the house, Joe and Diane van Ryzin, fell in love with the gorgeous little herp; with its electric green skin and bright red markings, it was a living work of art. When he first encountered it, Joe recalls, “I got excited. I had this incredible green gecko! I talked to my neighbors but they hadn’t seen one. I made friends with the geckoes and took the kids out to see them. They’re really friendly.”
So when the van Ryzins moved into the new house they’d built just next door, they brought their geckoes along. “Joe caught a bunch and introduced them to be sure we wouldn’t lose them,” says Diane.
“They were my friends, you know,” Joe explains. “So every time a gecko ran by as I was moving my stuff, I’d say, ‘Hey, you’re moving, too.’”
“Just the green ones,” Diane clarifies. “Not the yucky ones.”
By now almost everyone’s seen a day gecko, if not in person then on TV: the GEICO gecko is based on a member of the genus Phelsuma. Day geckoes, so called because they’re diurnal, are native to Madagascar and smaller islands off East Africa. In their home ranges they’ve become rare due to habitat loss and overharvesting for sale in the international pet trade (now illegal). But in Hawai‘i they’re flourishing, particularly the brilliant gold dust day gecko (Phelsuma laticauda), introduced in the ’70s and now common on O‘ahu and the Kona side of the Big Island, with smaller populations on Maui and Kaua‘i. It’s most recently appeared in Kaunakakai. The orange-spotted day gecko, as far as anyone knows, remains restricted to the Kailua neighborhood where it was introduced—deliberately.
Back in the ’70s, the state issued permits to bring in certain reptiles, though not day geckoes. A special exemp-
tion was given to the Honolulu Zoo, how-ever, to import Phelsuma for its exhibits. They were to be kept in enclosures only, but some didn’t obey that restriction. Sean McKeown, then curator of herpetology at the Honolulu Zoo and an enthusiastic hobbyist, released several Phelsuma species on zoo grounds. “The idea was that isolated stands of plants, like palms, could serve as ‘islands’ for colonies,” recalls Tihoti Maha‘a, a former student of McKeown’s. It was thought that the geckoes would stay on these islands, and in many cases that was true. Many of the zoo colonies died out, but not all. The stunning blue-tailed day gecko “persisted in the vicinity of the monkey exhibits through the ’90s,” Maha‘a says, “when the zoo implemented measures to recapture the colony.” No effort was made to recapture gold dusts, because by then there wasn’t much point—they were established else-where on O‘ahu. McKeown, who died in 2002, is also responsible for introducing orange-spotteds in Kailua. The area around his former home, just two blocks away from the van Ryzins, is guimbeaui ground zero. Maha‘a recalls that McKeown had once given his neighbor a “shoebox of brightly colored lizards” to release on his property, which according to Maha‘a the neighbor did.
In this day and age, introducing alien species into a closed island ecosystem like Hawai‘i seems like an anathema. With so many cautionary tales already out there, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be willing to take such a risk. But McKeown had a different attitude toward alien introductions than many biologists do, Maha‘a says. “Sean was very much a product of a time when introductions were seen as potentially beneficial or even improvements to a place. … There was no malice intended.” Nevertheless, in 1997 the state cracked down on the import and export of reptiles, not so much because of geckoes but because of a more serious threat, the Jackson’s chameleon. But it was too late: Phelsuma were established, and no one could do much about it.
And many residents frankly don’t want to do much about it; like the van Ryzins they welcome day geckoes. Who wouldn’t want a sociable, psychedelic lizard patrolling their länai? While the van Ryzins’ affection is typical, it’s also problematic: People deliberately spread day geckoes, which partly explains how they’ve colonized the Islands so quickly. (They’re also unintentionally transported around in potted plants.)
It’s still the dawn of the day of the day gecko, and it remains to be seen what it will do. If it follows the pattern of the house gecko, Hawai‘i could witness another sea change, one that might already be underway: Day geckoes stay active at night if there’s a light source. “If you look under the lights in Kona,” says Susan Brown, “the primary gecko now is the gold dust. It’ll run other geckoes off, even the big frenatus. People on the Kona side are watching their geckoes disappear as that day gecko moves in.” And unlike house geckoes, day geckoes also feed on fruit and plant nectar, giving them more freedom to expand their range.
The day gecko could also threaten native species. Steve Montgomery, one of the state’s foremost entomologists, has found gold dusts in Kona dry forests at 1,000 feet, the same habitat as a rare native plant hopper. Now that the day gecko is there, says Montgomery, “that insect’s days are numbered.” And while it’s hard to predict how or even whether the day gecko will expand its range, “All we have to do is look at what’s known about Phelsuma,” he says. “In Madagascar they’re found as high as 5,000 feet; there’s no forest in Hawai‘i outside of their potential habitat. …We’re playing biological Russian roulette,” he says.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon on Huelo Street near the back of Mänoa Valley, and Grant Merritt is fishing for geckoes. He’s rigged up a simple device—a fishing pole with a monofilament loop at the end—but it works. Leaning against the trunk of an areca palm, he jiggles the loop a few inches in front of a fat, green gecko poised below the crown of the tree. It regards the pole with its lidless eye, impassive.
“They’re aggressive,” Merritt tells me. “They can’t see the loop, but they’ll bite therod.” The gecko Merritt’s trying to snag is the most recent arrival, the Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma madagascarensis grandis). It’s a cousin of the gold dust and orange-spotted, but on steroids. They can grow to a foot long, and they bite. Merritt says that since he first saw one ten years ago, they’ve slowly radiated through this west Mänoa neighborhood. Doubtless they would have spread more quickly if not for Merritt, who’s taken it upon himself to catch or kill as many as he can, about thirty so far. You’ll often find him policing the neighborhood with his homemade snare, and if that doesn’t work, his pellet gun will.
“From thirty feet I’m a pretty good shot,” he says.
Merritt didn’t pay much attention to the day geckoes at first. “‘That’s cool,’ I thought. ‘It’s a neat gecko,’” he says. “It didn’t occur to me then what was going on.”
What was allegedly going on was that Merritt’s neighbor had been releasing smuggled exotic geckoes. Not only giant day geckoes, but Tokay geckoes, which are even larger, more aggressive and louder. Neighbors called the state Department of Agriculture’s hot line, 643-PEST, to report a bizarre new sound in the night. The man suspected of releasing the Tokays was already well known to the DOA, which had responded to prior complaints about exotic herps on and around his property. Fred Kraus along with DOA agents recovered five Tokays, now pickled in formaldehyde at Bishop Museum, and as far as anyone knows the Mänoa Tokays have been eradicated. But the giant day gecko is too well established for underfunded state agencies to manage—especially the DOA, which lost a third of its inspectors in last year’s budget cuts. So the state must rely on the help of concerned citizens.
“Hopefully they’ll put a dent in the population through attrition,” says Domingo Cravalho, the inspection and compliance chief for the DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch. “But it’s not a very organized way of control, and the population is just spreading. There’s no effort to actually go out there because of the number of animals we’re dealing with and because of the sensitivity of certain residents in the area who are, I guess, embracing the animals.”
Merritt’s quarry isn’t playing ball. After a few minutes of jiggling the line, Merritt gives up. The gecko turns and creeps into the high fronds. “Can’t win ’em all,” he says as we head back toward his house. Across the street, one of his neighbors is standing at the end of her driveway.
“You have any green geckoes up there?” Merritt asks.
“Not telling!” she says.
“Why not?” I ask her.
“Because,” she says, pointing at Merritt, “he’ll catch ’em and turn ’em in!”
“She likes the geckoes,” Merritt tells me. “She’s not from here; she’s from Brazil, where they have all kinds of stuff.” He shrugs. “People don’t understand.”
Just behind Huelo Street, the jungle grows up to the ridge, into the Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve. It continues unbroken toward the cloud-hung summit of Mount Olympus, one of the highest peaks of the Ko‘olau range, where fragments of native koa and ‘öhi‘a forest are still hanging on.
It might well be hopeless, but the lone figure with a fishing rod, who represents pretty much the entirety of the state’s giant day gecko control effort, intends to continue the fight.
“On weekends I’ll put on my bright green shirt and pretend I’m security watch,” Merritt grins. “The neighbors know I’m nuts.”