The main Hawaiian Islands all have nicknames. Oahu is the “Gathering Place.” Maui is the “Valley Isle.” Kauai is the “Garden Island.” Niihau, the most western island about 18 miles northwest of Kauai, is the “Forbidden Island.”
Niihau became knowns as the forbidden island during the polio outbreak in the early to mid 1900s, when it closed it coasts and declined any visitors from coming to the island. It still has a strict tourism policy today which allows a limited number of tour operators to visit the island in uninhabited areas of the island and makes the name “Forbidden Island stick”. Overnight accommodations are not available and the current owners offer half day helicopter and beach excursions only. In the early 1990’s the island started to offer hunting safaris as a way of tourism income allowing visitors to hunt eland, aoudad, and oryx, as well as wild sheep and boars. However; any meat from the kills hunters make belongs to the locals and cannot be taken off the island.
It has been privately owned by the same family since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair purchased it from King Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. Today the island is managed by Robinson brothers, Bruce and Keith Robinson who are descendants family members of Elizabeth Sinclair. King Kamehameha V, sold the Island with the promise of preserving Niihau ways of life, traditions and their natural habitats . Wanting to leave the island relatively untouched from outside influences the new owners have turned much of the island into a conservation area, working to nurture the endemic flora and fauna. Aside from several bird species and rare plants, the island of Niihau is also home to the largest population of critically endangered Hawaiin monk seals. The islands isolated coasts offer the seals a protected and secluded grounds that produce a perfect combination for helping the monk seals breed and thrive along their coast.
The Island is approximately 6 million years old and the remnant of the southwestern slope of a much larger volcano. Niihau has a population between 160-170 residents making it Hawaii’s 7th largest populated island with the largest settlement of residents living in Puʻuwai. Even though visitors to Niihau are strictly monitored it is noted that many of the locals travel off the island frequently. Many residents travel regularly to the nearby island of Kauai for supplies and necessities. Populations has been in a slow decline from residents relocating to other Hawaiin islands for work, schooling or health care. Due to the frequent droughts that can last many months some residents are forced to evacuate to other islands and choose to remain there permanently.
Niihau is relatively free of vegetation and considered a desertic or arid Island with a lack of rainfall that is contributed to the rains being blocked in the east by the mountains in Kaua’i. It relies on the winter cyclones or Kona storms for its rainfall and spends many months in drought conditions. The Robinson’s grandfather, Aubrey Robinson planted 10,000 trees per year during much of his ownership of the island; Robinson’s afforestation efforts increased rainfall in the dry climate. The dry climate is ideal for the solar power that is used on Niihau, as they do not have electricity or running water. The Niihauan’s live off the land, growing their own food, hunting and fishing. The island is their livelihood and they protect it from the outside encroachments.