Ka Wahi – The Site

Wao Kele O Puna

Place Name: Wao is a general term meaning “inland region”, and Kele means literally “watery”, “wet”, and also “lush”. Wao Kele O Puna refers to the forested upland rain belt of the district of Puna. Today the area is also known as the Puna Forest Reserve.

Description: At 27,775 acres, Wao Kele O Puna is home to the largest expanse of lowland tropical forest remaining in the Hawaiian Islands, and the entire United States. It is a vital part of our island’s watershed and is a haven of diversity, with many species that remain to be documented. This is also an area of great cultural importance to Native Hawaiians, who use it to gather plants for traditional crafts, medicine and ceremonial uses.

Wao Kele O Puna

Significance as Part of Ahupua‘a/Watershed
Wao Kele O Puna is located in the uplands of Puna east of the ahupua‘a of Kahaualea and Kamoamoa, West of Keonepoko, south of Kea‘au and northwest of 15 smaller ahupua‘a that meet the ocean.

Wao Kele’s boundaries are based on modern land ownership, and do not bear any relation to ahupua‘a boundaries or natural features. Because the land is so new and porous there are no permanent stream channels or surface flows, so the area is not a defined watershed. However, much of the site lies above Hawai‘i’s largest aquifer, or underground fresh water lake.

Although there were few, if any, permanent habitations in Wao Kele O Puna, the area was an important source of forest materials for ceremonial, medicinal and other uses. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that this was also an important ceremonial site where many shrines, altars and burials are located.

Geologic Features

The Ai-la‘au Lava Flows
Wao Kele O Puna is crossed by Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, which has been a very active volcanic area in recent times. The land in this area is full of deep cracks and fissures. About half of the site is on lava that is 350-500 years old, and the other half is on older flows, which are about 1,500 years old. These younger pahoehoe flows were called the Ai-la‘au Flows. They continued without stopping for many years, and created extensive underground lava tube systems.

One legend tells that when Pele arrived on Hawai‘i, she found another volcano god living there already named Ai-la‘au, the “forest eater”. Kilauea belonged to Ai-la‘au, and he lived there for a long time, devouring forests and moving from crater to crater, until he finally settled at Halema‘uma‘u. Pele wanted to go see him and find a place to settle down. But Ai-la‘au knew that Pele was coming, and trembling in fear, he ran away and became forever lost. When Pele arrived at Halema‘uma‘u she found it abandoned.

The highest point in Wao Kele O Puna is a lava shield with a crater, called Pu‘u Heiheiahulu. Hawaiian oral history suggests that it formed during the mid 1700’s. This feature lies on the boundary between the Middle and Lower East Rift Zones.

The Pāhoa Aquifer
Wao Kele O Puna lies over about a fifth of the Pāhoa Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the Hawaiian Islands. This area is considered a major recharge zone, where rainwater percolates into the deep rock layers to feed the aquifer. The relatively intact native forest is vitally important to this function.

Life in Lava Tubes
Lava Tube CricketHawai‘i’s lava tubes are filled with life found nowhere else on the planet. Many species living above ground have adapted to the dim, wet conditions of lava tubes. The Ope‘ape‘a, Hawai‘i’s endangered native bat, can be found near lava tube openings, as can many native and alien insects. Lava tube ecosystems depend heavily on the roots of ‘Ōhi‘a trees, which hang down from the surface and provide a vital source of nutrients.

Eventually, over long periods of time, some species living in lava tubes change so much that they cannot live above ground anymore. Once this happens, if the lava tube is not connected to other tubes, the species often evolve into new, completely unique creatures. This process is called speciation.

Wao Kele O Puna, there is a lava tube system known as the Middle Tube, where species of Lava Tube Crickets and other invertebrates have been found that have never been observed anywhere else. These blind crickets spend their lives upside down on the ceilings of lava tubes.

Last of the Wet Lowland Forests
The Hawaiian Islands have lost most of their lowland wet forests to agriculture, grazing and development. Wao Kele O Puna is the largest continuous lowland wet forest left.

The native plants here have evolved together over many thousands of years to form a diverse forest found nowhere else on Earth. This forest is made up of many layers of plants, from the high ‘Ōhi‘a canopy, down to an under story of lower trees like Kolea and Papāla Kēpau, to an even lower layer made up of tree ferns and shrubs. Still below these are low growing plants like ‘Ala‘ala wai nui and many kinds of moss that hug the ground.

This many layered structure allows rain to seep slowly through the forest and into the soil. Long after rain has stopped falling, the plants hold moisture and slowly release it into the atmosphere as water vapor. This vapor attracts tiny water droplets and condenses into clouds, which in turn create more rainfall. If this forest was not there, the land would be much drier for a long distance. Ancient Hawaiians noted how the lush forests of Puna attracted the rain and caused rain in places far away from the forests themselves.
Hahai nō ka ua i ka ulu lā’au - “The rain follows after the forest” ‘Ōlelo No‘eau - Mary Kawena Pukui

Habitat for Native Birds and Rare Plants
Native BirdMany of Hawai‘i’s native plants and animals have adapted to very specific living conditions. Some plants and animals have coevolved, which means they depend very much on each other to survive and thrive.

Many native birds, like the ‘Apapane, developed long, curved beaks over time so they could sip nectar from specific flowers, like the Lehua. Other birds have beaks that fit only the flowers of certain plants, which in turn are pollinated by those specific birds. If either one declines, its evolutionary partner is in trouble as well.

Many native plants and animals have developed this type of relationship, in which harm done to one species may very well cause harm to many others. For this reason, conservationists today are urging us to think of preserving whole ecosystems, rather than just individual species.

Nā Mo‘olelo ‘Āina – Traditions of the Land

Pele’s Presence – Fire and Water
Visible manifestations of the goddess Pele are more evident in Puna than perhaps any other place in Hawai‘i. With active lava flows and many areas covered by recent flows, Pele’sassociation with fire is clear, but in Puna, she is also associated with water.

According to legend, Puna’s fresh waters were created by the guardian of the Pele Clan, Kaneikawaiola. He protects the fresh water found underground in caves and lava tubes. Steam emerging from underground is thought to be Pele’s mana or life force. When there is not
an active eruption, it is believed that Pele manifests in the form of steam. Many cultural practitioners believe that Puna’s underground sources of water, especially warm pools found in caves and sources of steam are sacred to Pele. The fresh water of Puna is sacred to Kaneikawaiola.

Kini Akua – The Spirit Multitudes
There are many traditional chants that mention the kini akua, or “countless spirits” found in the forest. In addition to the major gods and goddesses, ancient Hawaiians believed that there were a multitude of other spirits whose home was the forest. They took the forms of trees, flowers, birds, moss and even rocks. These spirits could aid people who came into the forest, or they could cause mischief or worse harm, if they were offended by someone. Before entering the forest, chants and offerings recognizing the countless spirits were made to assure the kini akua were properly honored. How would our relationship to the forest be different today if we honored the many different forms of life there before we entered?

Laka – The Forest Goddess
ForestThe goddess Laka is believed by many to be the patroness of hula. She resides in the forests and can take the form of the many trees and plants found there. In traditional halau, a kuahu, or altar, is dedicated to Laka and decorated with plants sacred to her including Maile, ‘Ie‘ie, Lehua, and many types of ferns. Before collecting plans to decorate the kuahu, hula students would address Laka with a chant such as the one below.

Oli: E Laka E
Pupu weuweu e Laka ē
E Laka i ka leo
E Laka i ka loa‘a
E Laka i ka waiwai
E Laka i nā mea apau
Ano‘ai aloha ē

Chant: O Laka
O wildwood bouquet, o Laka
O Laka, queen of the voice
O Laka, giver of gifts
O Laka, giver of bounty
O Laka, giver of all things
Salutations and love


Threats, Preserving Native Forest and Activism, and Life Zones