Stalking the Wild Steer in Hawaii


In the jungles of Hawaii’s Big Island, wild cattle are the biggest—and most dangerous—game. But what are they even doing there? (Modern Farmer)

Use our resources to learn more about invasive species.

A paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) herds cattle on a  ranch on the Big Island. Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards, National Geographic
A paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) herds cattle on a ranch on the Big Island.
Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards, National Geographic

Discussion Questions



  • What are some ways cattle have impacted the Big Island’s environment?
    • The cattle, a feral or wild breed, are dangerous and have put the island’s human and animal population at risk. “Set aside your conceptions of ‘cow,'” the article says, “and think about an enormously muscled 1,500 to 2,000-pound animal, with horns the size of a full-grown man, which hangs out in herds of bored and testosterone-driven bachelor males, and has no fear of humans and no qualms about charging. It makes a grizzly bear seem cuddly.”
    • The cattle are a threat to the island’s delicate native vegetation. “The cattle stomp and eat the vegetation that’s had no time to evolve any protection against them, allowing other invasive species, like grasses, to take their place.”
    • The loss of native producers in the island’s food web puts all other indigenous species at risk: “Without the plants, the insects and birds lose a food source.”
    • Finally, the cattle even threaten Hawaii’s underwater habitats. What? “[T]he cattle’s stomping also causes erosion of the island’s edges, forcing sediment runoff down into the coral reefs.”


  • What do udders have to do with ukeleles? How did the introduction of cattle influence Hawaii’s hybrid culture?
    • According to the article, “In the early 1830s, Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, were brought over to Hawaii to teach Hawaiians the skills they’d need to deal with the sudden influx of 2,000-pound horned beasts that never belonged on their islands in the first place. Known now in Hawaii as ‘paniolo,’ the Mexican vaqueros brought cowboy culture to the islands.” Because Hawaii’s cowboy culture is older than the “Old West”, it draws more on Mexican and Spanish tradition than “American” cowboy cultures of the American southwest. (“Paniolo,” in fact, is a Hawaiian variation of the word espanol, the language of the immigrant vaqueros.) Paniolo, for instance, wear vaquero-inspired chaps and hats with flower lei. Read more about paniolos here or here!
    • The development of the iconic Hawaiian musical instrument, the ukelele, was influenced by Mexican, Spanish, and Portuguese music played by vaqueros and paniolos. The shape and sound of the ukelele was influenced by such instruments as the timple (developed in the Canary Islands of Spain) and the the Portuguese braguesa. Guitars were brought over with Mexican vaqueros, and Hawaiian guitarists developed their own unique genre of music—slack-key guitar. Take a listen to this lovely song, “[c]omposed to pay tribute to the vaquero who influenced Hawaiian cowboys in tunings that evolved into slack key. Try to image vaquero playing their Spanish tunes and Hawaiians trying to emulate them as the cattle settle down for the night. A Spanish-Hawaiian blend to serenade the herd.”

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