Of Sheep and Sandalwood

To fight invasive species and bring back the sandalwood tree, Justin Lee hunts feral sheep on his family’s Hawaiian forest preserve.

Text—Jonnah Perkins
Photos—Jesse Perkins

Justin Lee gives a deep, bellowing call to the sheep as he walks along a grass-covered lava trail, but the forest is silent. An hour passes without response as he climbs deeper into the bush, until finally he sits to rest at the foot of a koa tree. At last the wind shifts and Lee advances, bow in hand, until he spots a small herd 50 yards ahead. He drops to one knee and finds a shooting lane between ground shrubs and low-hanging branches. He takes his shot and the ram drops in place.

“For the forest to thrive, something must die,” Lee tells me after field dressing his mature ram on the forest floor.


He breaks it down with the swift precision of an experienced hunter, then packs the quartered ram into clean pillowcases for the walk back to his truck. The meat will feed his family for weeks. Sheep like this one were originally brought to Hawaii by early colonists but now run wild, degrading the native ecosystem. By hunting them, Lee not only contributes to the health of the forest — and in particular the sandalwood trees that his family harvests to fund their conservation work — but also provides sustenance for his family. “We’re giving ourselves nourishment, and we’re nourishing the land. Just because sheep are invasive does not mean they don’t deserve respect, and the best way to show respect is by using the entire animal.”

Through his family’s reforestation project, called Háloa Áina, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Lee has seen first-hand the destructive power of non-native animals.


Along with their livestock, the Europeans who colonized Hawaii also brought destructive grazing practices. They cleared forests and established aggressive grasses that could support large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, to the detriment of the native ecosystem. For generations, the Háloa Áina property was owned and managed by cattle ranchers, who subdivided the acreage into paddocks built from lava. In the time since cowboys stopped grazing cattle there, feral sheep have moved in. When the Lees first bought the land, they hunted intensively, thinning the sheep from hundreds to dozens. Now they manage the population more selectively.

Háloa Áina encompasses almost 3,000 acres of tropical dry land forest on the slopes of Hawaii’s second-highest peak, Mauna Loa. The organization seeks to restore the land to its pre-colonial balance by propagating native plants and managing invasive species. “Most of the work comes from protecting the trees, taking out invasive grasses, and managing the large ungulates that feed on the native foliage and spread invasives,” explains Lee (ungulates are, basically, mammals with hooves — in this case, sheep).

For the Lees, hunting is a critical part of stewarding the forest. When the sheep herds are at a sustainable level, they help keep the non-native grasses from taking over and creating fire hazards.


But when the herds are too large, they eat and stunt the growth of native vegetation. “Gone are the days of putting up a fence and saying ‘That’s conservation,’” says Lee, whose father and grandfather were bowhunters. “You have to actively manage the forest now. There are too many invasive animals and plant species to just sit back and let it go.” When they started culling, herds of up to 200 animals wandered the forest; now, they’ve got the sheep down to herds of 20 or 30.

Restoring Hawaii’s traditional balance

Archaeological evidence indicates that when Captain Cook and his crew made landfall on the Big Island in 1779, the Hawaiian Islands were home to over one million people. Through the sophisticated ahupua’a system of rainwater capture, agriculture, and fishing, Hawaiians were completely self-sustaining. By contrast, today 95 per cent of Hawaii’s food is imported for its roughly 1.4 million inhabitants.

“Before Western influence, Hawaiians knew that living on remote islands, if you abuse the resources, eventually the island can no longer recover from what is taken.”

– Justin Lee

In the decade that Lee and his family have been restoring the Háloa Áina forests, they’ve managed to become the state’s first sandalwood producers since the aromatic tree was overharvested in the 1850s. ”Big animals like to rub their backs on trees. Sandalwood didn’t evolve to compete with hundred-pound animals rubbing against them,” Lee explains. By controlling the sheep population, the trees have a chance to thrive. The Lees have seen their sandalwood population go from 15,000 trees to over 100,000.

Along with the sandalwood, Háloa Áina propagates over 20 different types of native Hawaiian trees, shrubs, and vines. “We’re trying to bring back more than just sandalwood; we’re bringing back the whole forest. And the sandalwood is paying for all of this restoration.” Complex conservation projects like Háloa Áina require funding, and the Lees have found a niche in the premium sandalwood oil market.

By carefully selecting trees at the end of their life cycle from the canopy, the Lees mimic the natural process of forest turnover.


Justin explains: “A lot of our reforestation efforts come back naturally. When we harvest the tree and take out the root ball, we leave the roots behind. Then we end up with three to four new trees. Sandalwood is a semi-parasitic tree and needs a host tree. This means we need to have a diverse biological workforce. You need to have your whole forest intact and healthy to move forward.”

By looking at the entire forest ecosystem, Justin and his family have found abundance between the species that naturally evolved on the island and those that were imported. But there’s far to go yet — reforestation is the work of more than one lifetime. For his part, Lee is convinced that focusing on native resources will pay off in every sense: “We can be sustainable and profitable.” Thankfully, Lee’s passion for hunting supports the whole reforestation endeavour, enabling him to not only restore the land, but to feed his community.

Jonnah Perkins is a writer, farmer, food activist and competitive athlete. After over a decade of organic agriculture, Jonnah’s passion for local food has spilled into hunting, fishing, and foraging to experience the richest spectrum of emotions in her pursuit of localism. Her curiosity is focused on the intersection of environmentalism, food procurement, and adventure.


Jesse Perkins is a photographer and seventh-generation farmer currently specializing in organic seed potato production. Away from the farm, he likes to find new adventures near his home in the driftless region of southern Wisconsin, often with his two kids, Paavo and Mischa. Through photography and film he aims to capture both wild spaces and the people in agriculture making a difference to protect and strengthen their local communities and environment.

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