Apology after whale bone taonga seized

A complaint has been filed.

When Jake Aitken (Ngāti Ruapani, Ngai Tūhoe) returned to Aotearoa last week from a trip to Australia, which he does about two or three times each year, he was met with a shock.

Six years ago, for his 18th birthday, Aitken had been gifted a taonga made of whale bone, carved into a design that represents his two older brothers who passed away as children.

The taonga is dear to his heart and he’s worn the double manaia figure with immense pride. It’s precious to his whānau, he said.

He’s been told that the whale the bone came from had washed up north of Wellington and been gifted to the local iwi, Te Atiawa. His stepfather is a descendent and the family commissioned the carving.

After waiting in line at Customs in Wellington Airport when he arrived in the country he was asked specifically about the taonga — and was then referred to the biosecurity line with "whale bone" written across his arrival card. On previous trips he had been told by biosecurity staff that he didn’t need to declare the taonga as it had been professionally carved.

But this time was different.

He was met by two Ministry for Primary Industries biosecurity officers, he said. “They asked me to remove it from my around my neck so they could have a look at it. Meanwhile, another one of the officers started filling out some paperwork, which I later learned was to allow them to seize my taonga under section 27 of the Trade in Endangered Species Act, as they believed it was from an endangered species.”

Aitken said neither of them explained section 27 of the Act in which they were seizing it under, and when asked to read it, he said he was told to google it as it changed too often.

He said he was then told he wasn’t going to be given it back and that there was a chance it could be destroyed.

“I was shaking as I walked out of the airport, as I started googling and searching how I was going to get it back.”

After many calls and emails to the Department of Conservation, he was told to get a sworn affidavit stating where the bone carving was from and post it to DoC. 

This wasn’t good enough for Aitken, so he went to the local court got the affidavit signed and drove it straight to their offices to get the taonga back.

They didn’t have the taonga so they organized him to pick it up from the airport.

His taonga is now back with him. 

“Although I managed to get it back in a short time [48 hours], if it hadn’t been for my persistence, it would have still been sitting there.”

After the ordeal he posted his story on Facebook, where it has been met with hundreds of comments, reactions and shares -— a vast majority positive and supportive.  

Some of the responses on his post are people saying they prefer to leave their taonga at home in fear of them getting taken off them.

“I don’t think it’s good enough that this law kind of encourages us to leave our taonga at home and that we can’t travel with them, we should be able to share our stories with people around the world,” Aitken said.

In a written statement, DoC director of National Operations Hilary Aikman said under the Trade in Endangered Species Act, an endangered species officer can ask for an item to be surrendered at the airport if they have reasonable cause to believe it is protected under the Act.

There had been an increase of personal effects confiscated in New Zealand under the TIES Act, with 5394 in 2016 compared to 1473 in 2011, which has been attributed to the rise of international visitors to NZ.

The Ministry of Primary Industries said it was sorry Aitken had an experience at the border which has clearly upset him and it was looking into a complaint made in regards to how the matter was handled.

Cultural competency training had been a component of biosecurity officer recruit training for the past two years. Staff have access to a kaituitui (cultural advisor) but they were not called on in this case, the ministry said.

The ministry and DoC advised people traveling internationally with personal items made from endangered species, such as whalebone, to contact DoC for advice on whether a permit is required for an item.

“A lot of people have taonga made from whale bone and other sources that have the potential to be seized under the act - the majority of the people have no idea that they need to get a permit from DoC to either leave or reenter the country to travel with it,” Aitken said.

He suggested that biosecurity staff needed to be more informed about these processes of what to do when they come across these taonga.

“I also think it’s really important for DoC to get out there and talk with whānau and go along to events and tell people that this is what the law is and these are the processes that they need to go through to protect their taonga from being seized when they are traveling through airports.”

Aitken said that while the ministry had said it was sorry in the media, he was yet to receive a personal apology.

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