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Intruder Alert: How Invasive Species Wreak Havoc on the Environment — and What We Can Do About Them

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, our newest scent, Isle of Jasmine, spurs an investigation into invasive species — jasmine is both revered and reviled in different parts of the world — and the responsible cultivation practices used to mitigate the threat.

What do you get when you cross the world’s most notorious drug lord with four hippopotamuses?

“A ticking time bomb,” says biologist David Echeverrí.1

At the height of his power, Colombian cartel leader Pablo Escobar built himself a private zoo, which he stocked with all sorts of fabulous exotic animals, including four hippos. When Escobar died in a shootout with the police in 1993, the Colombian government took over his estate. Most of the animals in Escobar’s private zoo found homes with other zoos, but the hippos were allowed to roam free — mostly because wrangling a hippo is incredibly hard work.

A herd of Escobar’s hippos; Source: PRI

This didn’t turn out to be such a great idea. In the intervening decades, Colombia’s hippo population has exploded from the initial four to more than 50. Despite their cute reputation, hippos are one of the most aggressive animals on the planet. In fact, they kill more people in Africa every year than any other animal. It’s now Echeverrí’s job to figure out how to stop the hippos from spreading and upsetting the Colombian ecosystem further.2

Escobar’s hippos present one of the most fascinating instances of an “invasive species,” which the National Wildlife Federation defines as “any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.”3

“Invasive species often spread rapidly because there are no checks in place in the new ecosystem to prevent rampant population growth.”

When an invasive species infiltrates a new ecosystem, it upends that ecosystem’s natural operations. Invasive species often spread rapidly because there are no checks in place in the new ecosystem to prevent rampant population growth. Hippos in Africa must contend with drought and predation. Colombia, however, does not endure frequent droughts, and none of Colombia’s native animals evolved alongside hippos to become their predators.4

As an invasive species spreads, it may hunt native species to extinction, or it may spur population declines by outcompeting native species for the same resources. Some invasive species directly alter the environment itself. For example, the yellow starthistle, invasive in California, secretes a chemical through its roots that kills native plants.5

The Yellow Starthistle lives up to its spiky reputation; Source: Idaho Weed Awareness

Most invasive species don’t don’t arrive by way of a crime lord’s opulence. Mongooses became invasive in the Caribbean because plantation owners purposely brought them over to control the rat population in the 19th century.6 Similarly, kudzu — a prolific vine native to eastern Asia — came to America from Japan because people liked the way it looked, and ranchers hoped it would give their livestock something to munch on. Instead, kudzu rapidly overgrew entire forests, killing off native trees by blocking them from sunlight. Thus, it was christened “the vine that ate the South.”7 Still other invasive species simply hitchhike their way to infestation, like the Asian tiger mosquito, which rode a shipment of used tires to America.8

Kudzu overtakes a house and a schoolbus; Source: Tree Baltimore

No matter the route they take, invasive species pose a serious problem. Behind habitat destruction, they are the leading cause of biodiversity loss in the world.9 They also wreak economic devastation, causing $120 billion in damages to the U.S. alone.10

Eating Our Way Out of Trouble?

There is something else to note here: invasive species are by and large a product of human activity. Even if we didn’t deliberately introduce a new species to an environment, it likely got there by stowing away in our luggage, metaphorically speaking. Few animals can hop from continent to continent across vast expanses of land and sea without a little human intervention. If it’s our fault that invasive species exist, it’s also up to us to contain them.

That’s tricky business. Ecosystems are easily upset, but much tougher to put back together once thrown into disarray.

Echeverrí’s team in Colombia tried erecting fences and rock walls to limit the hippos’ range, but the animals simply trampled the barriers or leapt over them. They tried castrating male hippos to end reproduction, but they could only manage to catch and neuter one hippo a year. (Seriously, hippos are really hard to wrangle.) The latest plan is to partner with organizations that will relocate the hippos, but the clock is ticking.11 Population containment only works if the population is still small enough to manage, and the hippos have already increased their numbers more than tenfold since arriving in the Colombian wilds.12

“Actively promoting the cooking and eating of invasive species may give us a way to dine invaders to death.”

Meanwhile, advocates of “invasivorism” believe that actively promoting the cooking and eating of invasive species could not only raise awareness of the problem, but maybe even give us a way to dine invaders to death.

As part of the “FUTUREFOOD” initiative run by artist-scholars Matthew Battles and Keith Hartwig, Boston-based ice cream maker Gus Rancatore has been experimenting with a sorbet made from japanese knotweed, an aggressively invasive species in Massachusetts.13 It’s an interesting exercise, but it also hints at one of the limitations of invasivorism: some invasive species aren’t all that appetizing. Knotweed is highly nutritious, but Rancatore says the finished sorbet has a “funky applesauce” flavor.14

Invasivorism also runs into another limitation on the opposite end of the spectrum: some invasive species taste too good. Take the paiche, an invasive fish in the waterways of Bolivia. When invasivores tried to eat their way out of this particular problem, they accidentally turned paiche into a culinary trend. Demand for paiche has skyrocketed, leading to boom times for Bolivian fishermen. More and more fisheries are raising paiche specifically for the market — but paiche became invasive in the first place because flooding at a Peruvian fishery allowed some paiche stock to escape into Bolivian waters. You can probably see where this is going.15

The massive paiche can weigh up to 400 pounds; Source: Wikimedia

The Best Offense Is a Good Defense

Containment and control protocols can mitigate the damage, but scientists agree: if we want to stop invasive species, we need to prevent them from arriving in the first place. Many governments have put biosecurity measures in place to police the spread of invasive species, banning the transport of certain animals or products associated with infestation across borders. Midwestern states afflicted by the emerald ash borer — an oddly beautiful beetle that, unfortunately, gulps down ash trees like air — have attempted to stem further infestation by prohibiting the movement of hardwood firewood where the beetle may be lurking.16 Yet regulations can only do so much. Individuals have to do their part, which means more than just abiding by those regulations. Each of us has a duty to respect the natural order of our native ecosystems. That requires more conscious effort than you might think.

Damage by the emerald ash borer; Source:

Consider plant cultivation. Many home gardeners have accidentally facilitated the spread of invasive species because they just didn’t know any better. Plenty of nurseries and garden supply stores carry invasive species, and a gardener wouldn’t know that beautiful flower they just bought was going to turn into a nightmare unless they had done rigorous research beforehand.

Take jasmine, for example. The name alone evokes soft scents and soothing teas, and bouquets of elegant white blossoms. In a traditional Hawaiian wedding, the bride often wears a lei made of Arabian jasmine, which symbolizes romance.17 Arabian jasmine earned its reputation among Hawaiians in part because of the widely admired 19th-century Princess Ka’iulani, who filled the gardens of her estate with the delicate flower. Arabian jasmine’s Hawaiian name — ”pikake,” meaning “peacock” — derives from Ka’iulani’s beloved pet peacocks, who often roamed the jasmine garden with her.18

“A gorgeous flower brought to the state in the 1920s as an ornamental, Gold Coast jasmine is now considered a Category I invasive species.”

In Florida, however, jasmine’s a different story. A gorgeous flower brought to the state in the 1920s as an ornamental, Gold Coast jasmine is now considered a Category I invasive species, meaning it poses a significant threat to the state’s ecosystem.19 Far from a symbol of love, jasmine arouses only scorn among some Floridians.

Commercial planters are not off the hook, either: remember that kudzu first appeared in the States as a grazing crop used by ranchers.In fact, commercial operations may be a key line of defense against the spread of invasive species. It is often when these operations fail to do their due diligence — as was the case with the Peruvian paiche fishery — that invasive species arrive.

A More Mindful Way of Meddling

One of the joys of working with fragrance — as we do in producing our scented candles — is learning the rich stories of the natural world that yields the ingredients we choose, particularly the stories of how we can both honor and protect the ecosystem as we depend on it for business. We have the pleasure of working with Laboratoire Monique Rémy (known in the fragrance industry as “LMR” and owned by fragrance house IFF), which takes rigorous steps to provide perfumers and flavorists with pure, natural, transparent ingredients.

Jasminum grandiflorum, the jasmine species cultivated sustainably by IFF-LMR; Source: Photo by Grégoire Mahler, courtesy of IFF-LMR

LMR produces the jasmine essences used in our Isle of Jasmine scent and only farms jasmine in areas where it naturally occurs. To that end, LMR partners with a leading producer of jasmine in India, part of the flower’s native habitat.

Thankfully for us, LMR’s decision to cultivate jasmine only in its natural habitat doesn’t act as a limiting factor on its production. The organization uses experimental fields to safely test new techniques for sustainable cultivation, increased yields, and better transparency without running the risk of unintended ecosystemic damage. Through the careful pursuit of more efficient farming practices, LMR’s fields can yield up to five tons of jasmine flowers per acre. A 2017 analysis of similar jasmine crops in India found a lower average per-acre yield of 3.6 tons.20

By maximizing the yield from each acre, LMR grows more jasmine with less land, which in turn leaves more undisturbed land open for other native flora and fauna. Higher yields also lead to better wages for farmers and harvesters, who are typically paid per kilogram of jasmine.

In addition, LMR uses chemical-free methods of pest control and takes active steps to minimize fuel and water consumption. LMR has also swapped out plastic for wooden boxes to transport its jasmine crop. The wooden boxes are more sustainable, and they offer the added bonus of keeping the flowers in better condition as they move from one location to the next.

Jasmine Harvesting in India; Source: IFF-LMR

While LMR takes steps to prevent invasion in the first place, other outfits have found ways to use existing invasive species to recultivate displaced native species. See, for example, the “Paper Plains” initiative from Minnesota State University Moorhead assistant professor of art Anna Haglin and papermaker James Kleiner. Haglin and Kleiner drive a mobile papermaking studio around Minnesota, inviting people to make paper out of reed canary grass, an invasive plant in the state. Not only does the paper use reed canary grass as a raw material, but Haglin and Kleiner also embed the seeds of native prairie plants within each finished sheet. Participants are encouraged to bury their sheets in the ground so that native plants will sprout and repopulate the area.21

Reed canary grass, which artist Anna Haglin uses to make paper; Source: Wisconsin Wetlands

Both LMR’s and Paper Plains’ efforts illustrate a simple but profound truth: a more mindful mode of meddling is possible. We can have nice things while still caring for the planet.

Put another way: No one needs to snatch hippos from their habitats to enjoy life!

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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