Recent damage to false koa trees at Manoa District Park may be the result of
the growing popularity of a bark extract with hallucinogenic properties.
On several occasions since the start of the year, vandals removed large strips of bark from at least six of the trees, more properly known as Acacia confusa. Although the culprits have not been identified, some parkgoers and officials suspect the bark was
harvested for its N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) content, an illegal psychedelic drug.
The bare trunks were noticed earlier this year on trees toward the back of the park near Manoa Stream. City officials posted yellow signs on some of the trees in mid-January to deter further vandalism, but within hours more trees were damaged. Park users report that within the last few days,
additional bark stripping has occurred, and some of the yellow signs have been ripped.
“It never really dawned on me that it was for drug purposes,” said Jerry Yamauchi, who has been visiting Manoa District Park for seven years.
A park user who walks her dog there and declined to be identified called the vandalism “heartbreaking.”
DMT is a naturally occurring substance in many plant species. It has no known medical purposes and has been used in South American religious practices and rituals, according to
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration website. In the 1960s DMT gained popularity as a hallucinogen, usually smoked or consumed as a brew, and was classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance along with heroin,
ecstasy, LSD, marijuana and other drugs.
The bark of Acacia confusa, an invasive species from Southeast Asia, also
is rich in tannins, used in textile dyes and for leather tanning, according to Julieta Rosell Garcia, researcher and professor at the
National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Department of Ecology of Biodiversity.
Garcia said the lucrative online market for Acacia confusa bark suggests the Manoa vandals may be
collecting it to sell or use as a hallucinogenic drug.
Several Hawaii online retailers offer Acacia confusa bark in powdered, chipped, shredded and whole form. One offered a kilogram of powered bark for $100. Details on sourcing and contact information were sketchy, although one website said the bark was gathered from the retailer’s own property and on neighbors’ land.
Officials at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages more than 678,612 acres of forest reserves across the islands, said they haven’t received any reports of similar vandalism. The state does allow gathering of plant materials in forest lands for personal use with a free permit issued by DLNR.
A separate permit is required for gathering for commercial purposes.
Collecting forest products from state parks is not
allowed, according to Dan Dennison, DLNR senior
DLNR issued 1,205 nontimber forest product collection permits for personal use and 34 permits for commercial use in 2018.
At city parks, gathering for personal use is not allowed unless by special arrangement with park staff, according to Nathan Serota, public information officer for the city Department of Parks and Recreation. Gathering for commercial use is prohibited.
Removal of plant materials from city parks without permission can result in a $500 fine and/or imprisonment for up to 30 days, he said.
Drug laws aside, tree vandalism can have dire consequences for the individual specimens and public landscapes.
“The damage done to a tree when scraping its bark is permanent,” Serota said. “Trees do not heal; they compartmentalize, so once an area is injured, the tree blocks nutrient flow to that area and it becomes more susceptible to fungal, bacterial and insect infestations. These infestations can permanently damage or even kill a tree.”
He added that damage also could affect the structure of the tree and potentially cause it to be unstable and a hazard to public safety.
Angela Liu, Aloha Arborist Association board member, said vandalism of trees and plants is hard to control.
“There isn’t an easy way to stop that kind of vandalism,” Liu said. “It’s difficult to monitor and prevent individuals from this kind of activity, unfortunately.”
Tree vandalism is not uncommon, according to J.B. Friday, a professor in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Unknown individuals tried to girdle — or strip a ring of bark from around a tree trunk — of newly planted kamani trees at Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo a few years ago.
“The trees are there for everybody to enjoy, and it takes a long time to grow trees,” Friday said. “And if people are careless and vandalize them, then it takes away from everybody else.”
More commonly, people injure trees accidentally or thoughtlessly, he said, for example, when hot coals from a hibachi are dumped at the base of a tree after a picnic so people won’t step on them.
“People seem to see trees as kind of inert things, just like a lamppost,” Friday said. “You gotta take care of trees; they’re living things that need to be cared for.”