These Botanists Are Searching for Endangered Plants With Drones — Then Scaling Cliffs to Save Them

Meet Hawaii's Indiana Joneses of rare plant conservation.

Adam Williams is dangling in midair next to a rugged cliff in Hawaii. His life depends on the tree that his rope is tethered to yards above his head. It’s a fitting situation for Williams, a state botanist, who rappelled down the cliff to retrieve a rare plant growing on the rockface.

Up above, drone specialist Ben Nyberg stands near the tree as a spotter, waiting for Williams to ascend with the Wilkesia hobdyi samples they’re after.


Together, Williams and Nyberg are like the Indiana Joneses of plant conservation, leading the crusade to preserve Hawaii’s most distinct — and endangered — plants.

Hawaii’s biodiversity is unique, largely because of its isolation: Nearly 90% of its native plants don’t grow anywhere else in the world, according to the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. But that isolation has also left it vulnerable to threats like invasive species and environmental changes. So even though Hawaii makes up less than 1% of U.S. landmass, it’s now home to nearly 45% of all endangered and threatened plants in the U.S.

Last year, Nyberg, the mapping and drone program coordinator at National Tropical Botanical Garden, used a drone to discover a plant thought to be extinct.

“As the climate is changing, we don't know how that's going to affect all these microclimate niches,” Nyberg said. “So we're making a push to just continue our work at a quicker rate.”

Recently, a deadly fungal disease called Rapid Ohia Death has made their work even more urgent. Two previously unknown strands of fungi are killing ohia trees, which are the bedrock of Hawaii’s native forests. In the past few years, Rapid Ohia Death has spread to all of the state’s major islands, threatening to destroy entire ecosystems — including rare plants.

Back on the cliff, Williams climbs up to Nyberg through pouring rain, carrying his precious plant samples in ziploc bags. With their mission complete, Williams and Nyberg will save some seeds for scientific research and send others to a seed bank for storage. That way, if the environment collapsed from Rapid Ohia Death or climate change, the plant would continue to exist.

“They're spectacular, and they should be preserved for that reason alone,” Nyberg said.

Video shot by Michael Shade, and edited by Danny Card and Michael Shade.