ʻAlalā once lived across Hawaiʻi Island. Now, due to a variety of threats in the wild, these birds are found only in captive breeding programs.
Timeline of the decline of the ʻalalā population in the wild:
1890s — found throughout its historic range
1900s – declines already observed
1950s – only small areas of historical range
1976 – only 76 birds, 3,000 – 6,000 ft. el., 4 areas: Hualālai, Hōnaunau, Honomalino, Kaʻū Forest Reserve
1991/1992 – 1 at Hualālai, 12 at Hōnaunau/McCandless Ranch
2002 – A single pair of ʻalalā was last observed in 2002 in South Kona. There have been no other confirmed sightings of ʻalalā in the wild since then.
ʻAlalā played an important role in the forests where it lived. It was an important seed disperser for many native plants. It ate the fruits of these plants, flew to another location, and left behind the seeds that had passed through its digestive tract. Without the ʻalalā, these native plants can have a harder time spreading and reproducing.
Due to a sharp drop in their population, a handful of ‘alalā were brought into captivity in the 1970s. Today, the ‘alalā is extinct in the wild, but biologists breed ʻalalā in captivity.
As of 2016, there were over 100 birds in two breeding facilities managed by the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (San Diego Zoo Global).