E. rosea is now so widespread that “exclosures” like the one we visited are among the few wild places where native snails can thrive. The team has already reintroduced into exclosures three species that were previously extinct in the wild. Every time, Sischo plays “Born Free” on his phone. “It’s a happy time, but it feels like a drop in a bucket,” he says.
At other moments, the exclosures can recall a postapocalyptic horror movie—a band of survivors holed up in a fortress, with monsters pounding on the walls. In scale, they’re not so different from the trailer: I could jog around this one’s outer wall in a minute. Instagrammers have been known to sneak inside to take selfies with the snails, occasionally breaking the barriers in the process. “What kind of existence is this?” Sischo asked.
He didn’t plan on this life. He started out as a geneticist, studying at the University of Hawaii with Michael Hadfield, whose research helped establish the snail program. But then he became the program’s coordinator—a mantle he seems likely to bear for quite some time. Hawaii’s snails are long-lived, and slow to mature and breed. “It’s like working with a rhino,” he said. “It’s a decades-long commitment to get them established.” I asked whether that means he’s in his role for good. He didn’t answer.
Back in the trailer after our visit to the exclosure, Lindsay Renshaw, the lab manager, was refreshing the snails’ accommodations—an ongoing ritual that takes days of careful work. She removed rotting vegetation and scoured every leaf for snails, which she put in a petri dish. When I arrived, she had found a dozen of them—a third of the world’s population of Achatinella bulimoides. One made a break for it, crawling over the edge of the dish with a baby stuck to its shell. Renshaw lifted it up with a leaf and put it back. Once every individual was accounted for, she cleaned the cage, packed in new foliage, and returned the snails. The work was meditative, but the responsibility, she said, was like “a heavy weight sitting on you.”
The trailer feels acutely vulnerable. It’s designed to deter would-be thieves, and to resist hurricanes. But a fire could easily destroy it, or a disease could sweep through it. Last September, a mystery pathogen appears to have entered the trailer on leaves fed to the snails, but it killed individuals from only the most numerous species. As harrowing as the episode was, there’s no good way to insure against future catastrophe. The snails can’t simply be spread among zoos or other facilities; they need dedicated equipment, experienced handlers, and a diet of native Hawaiian plants.
Consequently, it can be hard for the snails’ minders to relax, even when they are outside the trailer. How do you switch off, when your decisions mean existence or extinction? “It’s funny to think about species going extinct and then to hear news about the most ridiculous things like celebrity gossip,” Kupa’a Hee said. For him, action lightens the burden: “At least we’re aware of it and can do something.” And yet, with animals whose natural history is largely unknown, that something can be treacherous. “If you do it wrong, the snails die,” Sischo said. Deceased snails go in a cupboard morbidly labeled death cabinet. George’s remains now sit there, in their own vial.