Kapua Kawelo ’91 and Hi‘ilei Kawelo ’95

Sisters — From Mauka to Makai

Department: Alumni Profiles

Stewards of Our Island Home

Meet four extraordinary women who are taking on some of the toughest issues facing conservation today — from coral bleaching and Rapid ‘Ohi‘a Death to the swift tide of invasive species entering Hawai‘i. Threatening and urgent issues like these are part of the reason they have dedicated their lives to the protection and preservation of Hawai‘i’s natural lands and waters. The other part is their love and deep respect for the natural world, instilled at a young age by their parents. They also praise Punahou for encouraging public service, and fostering a lifetime of moral and personal responsibility.

Read additional stories in this feature by Suzanne Case ’74 and Ulalia Woodside ’88.

By Susan Nakamura

Big sister Kapua looks Hi‘ilei straight in the eyes and tells her, “You eat too much meat.” With a here-we-go-again look Hi‘ilei responds, “But I love my imported prosciutto.” In unison, they burst into laughter, which makes it obvious that this kind of playful banter is constant between these sisters.

Kapua and Hi‘ilei grew up in Kahalu‘u, remembering a childhood steeped in the traditional practices of their Hawaiian ancestors. “From a young age, we learned to fish, harvest, string lei and clean limu. Everything we did was connected to nature,” recalls Kapua.

Today, both sisters have chosen careers that not only keep them very close to nature but also help protect and preserve their beloved homeland.

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Kapua monitors endangered plants on ‘Ohikilolo ridge, in the Wai‘anae Mountains on O‘ahu.

Kapua, who entered Punahou in the ninth grade and thrived in AP Biology, went on to earn a degree in botany from the University of California, Davis. Today, she is a biologist and supervisor, working for the U.S. Army Natural Resource Program, which oversees compliance with the Federal Endangered Species Act and works to effectively balance the requirements of the Army’s training mission with responsibility for managing hundreds of threatened and endangered species in Hawai‘i, including plants, snails, birds, bats, insects and their critical habitats.

“Twenty years ago, I was one of two biologists hired and today we’re up to 55. When I started I had flash cards to learn plant names. I couldn’t learn fast enough; I knew being a steward of the land is what I wanted to do. I even met my husband, a fellow biologist, on the job,” Kapua shares with delight.

Hi‘ilei came to Punahou in the sixth grade, and vividly remembers her growing activism during her Academy years. “It was 1993 – the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. I saw thousands of people rallying for sovereignty, and I wanted to know the truth about our history.” The historic milestone sparked her desire to learn more about her Hawaiian roots, and when she pursued her degree in zoology at the University of Hawai‘i – Manoa, she took as many Hawaiian studies and language classes as she could squeeze in.

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Hi‘ilei admires the restored fishpond wall (kuapa) and sluice gate (makaha), the fruits of her labor at He‘eia Fishpond.

After graduating, she worked at the Oceanic Institute for five years in the Fisheries and Environmental Science Program/Stock Enhancement Program. She was also involved in another project that would eventually become her full-time job. Located in He‘eia Uli on the windward side of O‘ahu, He‘eia Fishpond is a traditional walled fishpond enclosing 88 acres of brackish water. “It was smothered by mangrove; you couldn’t even see the horizon. I have tremendous love for the place and that’s why I’m still there 16 years later,” says Hi‘ilei. She started as a student volunteer and, in 2001, became the executive director of Paepae o He‘eia, a small nonprofit that cares for the fishpond.

Both Kapua and Hi‘ilei credit their loving family and Punahou with giving them a sense of place and responsibility to the ‘aina. “Hawai‘i is our home and we must give back to the land that sustains our families,” says Hi‘ilei.

Kapua adds, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. Our hope is that Punahou students continue to give back to preserve Hawai‘i’s amazing diversity of life.” Hi‘ilei nods in agreement.

“People call us the mauka and makai sisters because of the work we do, but we love crossing over,” shares Hi‘ilei. “Sometimes I just need to go to the forest for a change.” Not missing a beat, Kapua responds, “And I’m at the fishpond all the time; we need balance and each other.”

Susan Nakamura is a freelance writer in Hawai‘i and the mother of Ana ’20.

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