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Challenge offers $70K prize for finding solutions to save the ohia

  • Photo courtesy of NATIONAL PARK SERVICE A National Park Service resource management employee fells an ohia tree infected with rapid ohia death in Kahuku.

A new competition aims to save Hawaii’s ohia.

“The Ohia Challenge is a prize competition to develop tools and creative solutions to improve our detection of the fugal species causing rapid ohia death,” said David Benitez, an ecologist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park who is leading the challenge.

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A $70,000 prize will be awarded to the winning team that develops an “innovative and cost-effective solution,” he said. The prize might be split among up to three teams.

Anyone can submit a project that provides solutions that identify infected trees early, minimize the spread of ROD and eliminate the pathogens — all with the goal of saving the ohia.

According to Benitez, funding is provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the challenge is hosted by Conservation X Labs. It is open to individuals not employed by the federal government and corporations and begins Aug. 27. A winner will be announced July 1, 2019.

“We are reaching out to potential sponsors and partners and are hopeful that this challenge spurs additional competitions which could one day lead to the elimination of rapid ohia death,” he said.

Ohia trees are threatened by microscopic invasive fungi — Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia — that have been found on Hawaii Island and Kauai and are responsible for ROD.

“Our goal is to use the best of human ingenuity to identify technological solutions that can save part of Hawaii’s beauty,” said Alex Dehgan, CEO of Conservation X Labs, in a press release issued by HVNP. “This is why we look to engage innovative thinkers with other advanced technology fields through this challenge prize. We don’t have to accept ohia’s extinction.”

Benitez said ohia is the keystone species in Hawaii forests and is the dominant native forest tree in the state.

It is “very significant” to Hawaiian culture, he said.

The ohia’s canopy also protects “innumerable” small trees and native shrubs, its trunk and branches shelter native insects and birds and its lehua flowers provide nectar for many native and endangered honeycreepers, said Benitez.

“Loss of ohia due to ROD has the potential to cause major ecosystem disturbances across the state that will negatively impact watersheds, cultural traditions, natural resources and quality of life,” he said.

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For more information about the challenge, visit conservationx.com/challenge/invasives/ohia or savetheohia.org.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.