The tiny coqui frog may seem harmless, but as night falls over the islands of Hawaii, thousands of these coin-sized critters start terrorizing the local population with their unrelenting mating calls that can reach up to 90 decibels. Luckily, frog whisperer Keevin Meenami speaks their language and can draw the females out when they become to much to bear.
“ko-KEE-ko-KEE-ko-KEE” – that’s the sound that has disrupted countless hours of sleep and scared away both potential home buyers and tourists from several parts of the Hawaiian archipelago, including the Big Island. Originally from Puerto Rico, the tiny coqui frogs have been arriving to Hawaii as cargo-ship stowaways ever since the late 1980s. With no natural predators to trouble them, they have been multiplying rapidly, eluding eradication crews by camouflaging themselves with a brown or yellow coloring that blends into Hawaiian vegetation. In 2004, authorities declared war on the coqui and came up with several plans to wipe them out them from the Big island, which had become their headquarters of sorts, and from where they constantly escaped to neighboring islands. They tried just about everything, but in 2010 they announced nothing could be done to get rid of or even contain the coqui population. These days county, state and private groups are doing everything in their power to prevent the invasive frogs from taking over Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated island. Every time there’s a report of coqui chirping anywhere on the island, intervention teams are deployed to localize and neutralize the threat. Most times the frogs are whacked on the spot, but one man has come up with a non-violent way of dealing with the frogs – he just talks to them.
Photo: Angel A. Acevedo
Keevin Meenami is a Hawaii Department of Agriculture land vertebrates expert, but he’s better known as the Frog Whisperer. He spent a long time sitting under trees just mimicking their mating call and has now refined his coqui language to the point where female frogs actually respond to his locution and come out of hiding. Wearing a head lamp, he just chirps and waits until the coquis leap into his special trap – a tube with a plastic bottle at the end. Instead of killing the frogs, Meenami takes them to a giant terarium in his office to live out the rest of their natural lives. Stalking and zeroing in on a coqui frog can take hours, but the Hawaiian frog whisperer thinks it’s worth the time if he can capture it alive. So far his mimicking skill has helped him catch hundreds of tiny specimens all over Oahu. “I always try to bring my man back alive,” he says.
In small numbers, coqui frogs are manageable, as they do tend to draw attention to themselves with their loud mating calls, but the big fear is they’ll one day make it into into remote parts of the Koolau Mountains or the Waianae Mountains, where no one will report their presence, allowing them to multiply in peace. If that were to happen, neither Kevin Meenami or Oahu’s coqui elimination squad will be able to stop them from taking over the whole island. Fortunately, so far the tiny frogs have only been heard plant nurseries and residential areas, where they were easy to get at.
Feared and hunted down in Hawaii, the coqui is actually very popular in its native land of Puerto Rico. The small frog is the official mascot of the island and its chirping is considered rather melodious. Ironically enough, the number of coqui frogs in Puerto Rico has been declining rapidly due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution and a virulent fungus, but in Hawaii they are thriving.