Museum backs call to ban trade of extinct animal bones

Museum Natural Sciences assistant curator Kane Fleury holds a bone of a female South Island giant moa.

A proposal to ban the trade of extinct animal remains has been in consultation since it was announced last year. Southland Express reporter Laura Smith took a look at what such a ban might mean from a scientific standpoint.

Otago Museum’s natural history dry store holds a large collection of extinct species’ bone,
including moa from around Southland and Otago.

WHAT can a moa and frog have in common?

Well, a lot apparently.

Despite the obvious differences of size, it turns out the bones of both can be highly valuable.

A discovery of an extinct frog was made from a bone found in a Southland cave system known for its moa and, for the museum safeguarding it, has highlighted the importance what a trade ban on extinct species would mean.

The sale of moa bone is not illegal, but it could soon be under a Government proposal announced last year.

Recent examples of specimens for sale fetching a pretty penny include a moa skeleton which was one of the main attractions of a Dunedin auctioneer’s taxidermy auction in
June this year.

Proctor Auctions auctioned off the skeleton of a male heavy-footed moa and salesman Jordan Proctor previously said the possible new regulations meant the skeleton might
be the last one the firm sold, having sold another set of bones the month before.

The June skeleton sold for $28,000 and was listed with the description: ‘‘Found in Takaka region all together so more than likely from same bird. Complete with gallstones.’’

The skeleton sold before was potentially from Southland, and sold for $44,000 in the Ultimate Man Cave Auction.

Moa bones have been sold overseas, including through art and luxuries auctioneer Christie’s; a 2013 listing described the right tibia, left femur, right tarso-metatarsal and dorsal vertebra of a moa, estimated to be worth £2000-£3000. The price realised was £3000.

Then Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage explained the Extinct Species Trade Regulations would prohibit – with some exemptions – the sale and purchase of bones, eggs, and other remains of extinct native species. Public consultation closed just over a year ago.

While submissions are not yet public, some 40 people and groups submitted their views.

When the proposal was announced, the now Green Party list MP described its purpose to tackle the problem of moa bones and other sub-fossil remains being removed from protected sites and sold.

This bone, found in a Southland cave, is the only evidence a now extinct frog existed.

Since 2010, museum scientists documented more than 350 instances of moa bones and eggshells being offered for sale and, in many cases, identified these items had been recently removed from protected sites.

“The proposals to use regulations under the Wildlife Act to prohibit the sale of the remains of extinct species, with some special exceptions, would remove the financial incentive that
leads a few selfish people to vandalise our natural and cultural heritage,” she said.

Otago Museum was one of many throughout New Zealand to jointly submit on the proposal.

While the motive behind the recent theft of moa bones from a Fiordland museum remained unclear, it prompted some talk about the proposed ban.

Otago Museum Natural Sciences assistant curator Kane Fleury took to social media to explain theft was a reason he wanted to see the sale of moa bones in New Zealand banned.

Speaking with the Southland Express about the topic, he described the large collection of moa the museum held, which was used for comparative material in study.

Most of the material had been found in swamps, cave sites, dune deposits and middens, with many from Southland and Otago.

Having a large collection allowed for accuracy when making inferences about moa.

‘‘Over time, this collection has helped influence a lot of the scientific thought in what we know about moa today.’’

It went beyond moa, however, in that it was useful in learning more about other species which had been found in the same places, as well as for learning what could be done in
conservation now.

When people foraged and fossicked for moa bone from places they should not, it often destroyed that contextual information, he said.

Those who hunted for moa bones often wanted to find the most valuable offerings, but this selective taking meant incomplete information for both what was taken and what was left

Seemingly insignificant, a bone the size of a fingernail was found in a Southland cave system where moa had been found.

It belonged to an extinct species of frog, and was the only evidence it ever existed.

Mr Fleury explained the trouble was, when people looked to make a quick buck from moa, they could easily destroy such inconspicuous evidence.

Department of Conservation (Doc) senior policy adviser Michael Gee explained the second phase of its engagement with iwi was under way.

‘‘Once engagement is complete, final recommendations will be provided to the Minister of
Conservation for her consideration.

‘‘We expect submissions and a summary of submissions will be made public at that time.’’

Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu Te Ao Turoa general manager Trudy Heath said it had submitted on the proposal.

‘‘We continue to engage with Doc to ensure an appropriate process for the management of extinct taonga species and their remains is developed in partnership with Te Runanga o
Ngai Tahu.’’

She detailed how taonga plants, birds and other native wildlife traditionally helped to sustain Ngai Tahu tipuna (ancestors) and were part of Ngai Tahu whakapapa (genealogy)
and identity.

‘‘Many of these species are now extinct. The remains of extinct taonga are irreplaceable and beyond value as nga morehu – the few precious survivors – and so must be treasured
and protected with the utmost care and sensitivity according to tikanga (customs) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship).’’

As for taonga on display in museums, she explained its stance would depend on the context and nature of the taonga.

‘‘For Maori taonga in the Ngai Tahu takiwa, the relevant Papatipu Runanga should be fully involved in decision making as kaitiaki of their rohe.

‘‘Our minimum expectation is for the Crown to ensure compliance with the processes under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 and Protected Objects Act 1975, with
taonga tuturu returned to iwi/hapu ownership.’’