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The Hawai‘i Forest Institute (HFI) and the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association (HFIA), along with community partners completed the Phase I of the Pana‘ewa Zoo Discovery Forest in 2011 and Phase II  in 2013.  Over 700 community volunteers have participated in creating native and agro-forest demonstration gardens. In Phase II, a main project kiosk, Native and Polynesian-introduced interpretive signs, and Plant ID signs were installed.   HFI is currently seeding funds to complete Phase III, which will include clearing the remaining undesirable trees and planting more seedlings.  The project is providing education, recreation, and volunteer opportunities for community residents and visitors.

What’s New at the Pana‘ewa Zoo Discovery Forest

An exciting additional to the Discovery Forest in 2015 was the initiation of a traditional Hawaiian hale.  HFI is working with Traditional Hawaiian Hale Builder Walter Wong “Unko Waltah” to construct the hale.  The hale is being constructed during volunteer workshops conducted by Unko Waltah.  During the workshops, community volunteers learn about this unique Hawaiian tradition. The workshops are meant to help perpetuate the Hawaiian culture and to bring back the skills of building a structure out of materials from the ‘āina. Parts of the Hale Ku’ai/Papa’a will come from Pana’ewa lands — the pohaku (rocks) for the foundation, the tree poles and the thatching.  See photos of March 21 workshop here.

The Discovery Forest receives quarterly groomings, courtesy of the Kiwanis Club of East Hawai’i ohana under the direction of Outreach Coordinator Iwikau’ikaua Joaquin.  Kiwanis Club members and their sponsored youth clubs volunteer to help maintain and nurture the Discovery Forest.

UH Ford Leadership volunteers and  J.B. Friday, Jackie Ralya, and Mike Donoho in front of the  kiosk.

See more photos below.

In the Summer of 2013, 80 Kamehameha Schools 1st grade students visited the Discovery Forest this summer.  Four groups of 20 students spent an hour pulling weeds and planting seedlings.  See gallery here.

The Discovery Forest features a demonstration of native, cultural, and medicinal plants. Culturally significant plants that once grew in the traditional farms and native forests of East Hawai‘i are featured in the Discovery Forest, including Polynesian-introduced plants that arrived with migrations in voyaging canoes. These “canoe plants”, along with many endemic species, play essential roles in Hawaiian culture, for food, fiber, tools, implements, building materials, and medicine. Many of these culturally significant plants have found a place in the Discovery forest.

Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalani‘ana‘ole Elementary and Intermediate School first grade students planted native Hawaiian plants and learned from native plant experts at the Pana‘ewa Zoo Discovery Forest.  See gallery here.

A group of 80 Kamehameha Schools first grade students have visited the Discovery Forest several times to clear weeds, plant seedlings, and learn from native plant experts.  See gallery here.

In addition to area school and community groups such as Pacific Quest, Kiwanis Kids are helping to create and maintain the Discovery Forest. Landscape Architects, Leonard Bisel Associates (LBA) created thoughtful preliminary native and agro-forest demonstration design plans.  Kiwanis Kids Gallery

Native Forest Plan

The native plan provides a tiered effect of native trees, plants, and groundcovers including Naupaka kuahiwi (Scaevola gaudichaudii), Maile (Alyxia stellata), Hāpu‘u pulu (Cibotium glaucum), Kōlea (Myrsine lessertiana), and Kōpiko (Psychotria hawaiiensis). Boulders, gravel rock, and stepping pavers provide for a low maintenance viewing platform and add visual interest. Native species will be outplanted among existing native species including Lama, Hāpu’u pulu, and ‘Ōhi‘a.

Agro-forest Plan

The agro-forest features a strategically-placed viewing platform overlooking low, mid and higher canopy species such as Awa, (Piper methysticum, Noni (Morinda citrifolia), Ulu (Artocarpus altilis), and Milo (Thespesia populnea). An existing Kukui (Candlenut) and palms are incorporated into the design. Edged planting beds, stone groundcovers, and decorative pavers enhance the plantings.

The Phase II plan blends the Native and Agro-forest gardens.

Mahalo to LBA for donating 50% of their design services.

HFIA is seeking monetary and in-kind donations through the Hawai‘i Forest Institute, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. Volunteers and contributions are needed for planting seedlings, caring for new plants, plants and planting materials, interpretive features, and hardscape materials. To learn more about volunteer and partnership opportunities, contact HFI at 808-933-9411 or

The Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is operated by the County of Hawai‘i Department of Parks and Recreation and is open to the public free of charge every day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s Day. The Zoo & Gardens is located in the middle of a lush Hawaiian tropical rainforest in Hilo, Hawai‘i. It is a popular attraction for both residents and tourists, with an estimated 170,000 visitors annually.

Discovery Forest Committee Members
Aileen Yeh (Chair), HFI, HFIA
Dr. J.B. Friday, UH CTAHR, HFI
Peter D. Simmons, HFIA, HFI
Elin Walburn, HFIA
Nick Koch, HFIA, Forest Solutions
Heather Simmons, HFIA, HFI

Phase II Pana’ewa Zoo Site Plan
Pana’ewa Zoo Discovery Forest Brochure

To learn more about the many ways you can support the Discovery Forest, download the Sponsorship Packet. Discovery Forest Sponsorship Packet.

J.B. Friday’s Pana‘ewa Zoo plants: J.B. Friday’s Pana‘ewa Zoo native plant gallery:



Hawai‘i Tourism Authority
DLNR Division of Forestry & Wildlife and USDA Forest Service through Kaulunani Urban Forestry Program
Cleo Foundation
Change Happens Foundation
Captain Planet Foundation
HPM Building Supply
Hawai‘i Forest & Trail
Big Island Candies
Lava Rock Realty
Miranda Country Store, Inc.
Mr. K’s Recycle & Redemption Center
Hawai‘i Community Foundation FLEX program funders:  Group 70 Foundation Fund, Hokuli‘a Community Fund, Susan M. Kosasa Fund and the Rev. Takie Okumura Family Fund

Project Partners and In-kind Donors
Aileen’s Nursery
Awapuhi Farms & Mill
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR)
Friends of the Zoo
Forest Solutions, Inc.
Hawai‘i Community College Forest TEAM and Junior Forest Team
Hawai‘i County Parks & Recreation
Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association
Honua Landscaping Inc.
Leonard Bisel Associates
Mālama O Puna
Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens
San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research

Volunteer Evaluation Survey

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