Threatening the Kereru

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.

If there’s one thing that unites New Zealanders it is a love of nature and our natural environment. It explains why hundreds of thousands of Kiwis spend so much time and money planting trees, flowers and shrubs to create habitats for native birds.

Even small gardens can attract a large variety of native birds – especially over winter – and many will travel considerable distances to search out their preferred food.

Some established gardens may be lucky enough to have puriri trees, whose flowers and berries are a favourite of tuis, bellbirds and of course wood pigeons.

In fact, since the extinction of the moa, the native wood pigeon is the only bird in our native forests that is capable of swallowing fruit with a diameter larger than 12mm and dispersing the seeds whole, to help regeneration. Native trees such as the karaka, taraire, tawa, miro and puriri depend on the kereru to carry their seeds to new areas of the forest.

While wood pigeons can live between 15 and 20 years, in some parts of the country the average lifespan is said to be only one to five years. In those cases, the biggest threats to the birds are injuries, habitat loss, predation and illegal hunting.

In spite of being a protected species, poaching kereru seems to be big business. Iwi leader Sonny Tau, the chairman of Ngapuhi, was caught trying to smuggle five dead wood pigeons onto a plane from Invercargill to Northland last month. His behaviour caused widespread public anger – and fear that his actions might be dismissed as a “customary practice” or that the Department of Conservation might decide not to press charges against someone of his privileged status.

The level of outrage was similar to that seen last year, when it looked like the Maori King’s son was going to be let off charges of burglary, theft, and drink driving, because of his status. In that case, the presiding Judge Philippa Cunningham, had justified her decision to discharge 19-year old Korotangi Paki without conviction by claiming that while the drink driving was ‘moderately’ serious (his breath test reading was more than five times over the youth limit) the direct and indirect consequences of a conviction were “out of all proportion” to the offence, since any conviction for criminal offending would render him ineligible to be king.

At the time, Tuku Morgan, the Maori King’s representative, called the judgement a victory for Maori: “I think that is a recognition of the uniqueness of this country. Maori tikanga, Maori culture has been recognised today by a very senior court.”

But the public disagreed – as did Crown Law, which successfully appealed the decision in the High Court late last year, resulting in the Maori King’s son now having a drink driving conviction against his name. In this case, the Crown held true to the principle that no-one is above the law.

Over recent years tribal leaders have been aggressively advancing their claims that Maori and the Crown are Treaty partners and that they are the guardians of New Zealand’s natural resources. No doubt they hope that if they say it loudly and often enough, it will become the accepted wisdom and deliver them the privileged status they seek. But not only is it constitutionally impossible for the Crown to become a partner with its subjects, but in reality, it is the exploitation of tribal leaders that poses the real threat to New Zealand’s natural environment.

Who doesn’t believe that money was a motivation behind their demands for the guardianship of Ninety Mile Beach, when in December last year the issue of charging commercial operators for using the beach was raised? And who does not believe successful foreshore and seabed claims will not lead to levies on those who make their living from the area – or to potential mining activities? Who does not believe that the progressive banning of private vehicles from the now iwi-controlled volcanic cones in Auckland will not one day lead to a commercial pay-back? Or that the iwi ownership of lakes and rivers and parks will not lead to the charging of commercial users – after all it’s already occurring in Lake Taupo and Lake Ellesmere…

None of this is about guardianship, it’s about money.

In the case of Sonny Tau and the five dead wood pigeons, the Department of Conservation has advised that two charges have been laid against him in the Invercargill District Court under the Wildlife Act in relation to the killing and possession of protected New Zealand native wood pigeons. The charges will be read in the Invercargill District Court on July 24.

Section 67A of the Wildlife Act states that every person who commits an offence, which relates to “hunting, killing, buying, or selling absolutely protected wildlife” or “receiving absolutely protected wildlife taken without authority” is liable on conviction to “imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or a fine not exceeding $100,000, or both”.

It will be interesting to discover whether Mr Tau is also being charged with offences relating to the transportation of wildlife since section 62 of the Act says that, “No person shall consign or send by any carrier or forwarding agent or by any other means any parcel, package, case, bag, luggage, or other container containing any absolutely protected wildlife (whether alive or dead)… unless the parcel, package, case, bag, luggage, or other container is plainly marked on the outside in such a manner as to give a list and description of the contents and the name and address of the consignor and consignee.”

Given that Mr Tau was concealing the pigeons under his jacket it is probably fair to assume they were neither labelled with a description, nor with the name and address of the consignor or consignee!

The full protection of the New Zealand native wood pigeon occurred in 1922 when the Animal Protection and Game Act was passed by Parliament. A report produced by James Feldman for the Waitangi Tribunal in 2001, Treaty Rights and Pigeon Poaching, outlines the tortuous path taken from open slather to full protection and explains how “The Department of Internal Affairs implemented a policy that denied Maori special access to the bird and disallowed claims that the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed hunting rights”. The report notes, “The question of how to enforce the prohibition on the hunting of kereru created a whole new set of problems for Internal Affairs, however, and Maori hunting of kereru did not end in 1922.”

In other words, while the right of Maori to kill the kereru was well and truly addressed by Parliament almost 100 years ago, the exploitation continues.

A recent article by Rotorua District Councillor Merepeka Rukawa Tait in support of her late husband’s pigeon poaching confirms this: “Theo’s older family members would have known the birds were protected by law. They didn’t make a big song and dance about it, just ignored it. They were not about to be told that they could no longer shoot and eat kereru. So Theo kept shooting… Continuing the practice he had been taught. Before going into the bush to shoot kereru, prayers would be said… After a while, I got used to having kereru in the deep freeze. Theo during his time continued a practice that had been going on for over 100 years.”

However, figures obtained by the Northern Advocate from the Department of Conservation show a disturbing trend. While there have been 47 convictions for killing or possessing kereru in Northland since the Department was established in 1987, with 15 since 1998, there have been no prosecutions since 2007.

If the lack of prosecutions is because kereru are no longer being poached, it would be a great outcome. But unfortunately that is not the case. The reality is that the Department of Conservation now appears to be turning a blind eye to the problem. This was admitted by the Chairman of the Northland Conservation Board, Mita Harris, who said that hunting protected wood pigeons is an ‘annual problem’: “There are people getting away with it. I mean I could take you into the forest and show you shooting spots, you’ll find a stash of feathers on the ground.”

It is simply not good enough that the government’s guardians of a protected species are not doing their job.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is David Round, a lecturer in law at Canterbury University and author of Truth or Treaty? Commonsense questions about the Treaty of Waitangi. As a keen conservationist, David is extremely concerned about the implications of an iwi leader getting away with killing native pigeons. He believes it would set a disastrous precedent, which would result in an “open slather” on pigeons. He says it is time that section 4 of the Conservation Act, which he thinks could be used by Sonny Tau to defend his actions, was repealed:

“I imagine that Tau’s defence might involve a claim that pigeon are a ‘traditional food’, and perhaps that section 4 of the Conservation Act 1987, which says that ‘This act shall so be interpreted and administered as to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi’, justifies his actions.”

“A traditional food? Undoubtedly. Just like kiwi, kaka, penguin, woodhen (weka), tui, kakapo, albatross.  Just like moa, for that matter. I leave you to recall the fate of our eleven species of moa. Just like whitebait, paua, crayfish, mussels, every sea and river fish; just like seals and dolphins. Sir Tipene O’Regan, indeed, has called for the ‘harvesting’ of fur seals, as well as saying that the only reason for protecting pigeons now is to enable numbers to increase to the point where they can be eaten again. Not a very spiritual attitude, I’d have thought…

“What about Tau’s ‘section 4 defence’; that somehow ‘Treaty principles’ entitle him to flout the laws that bind everyone else? He is of course being charged under the Wildlife Act, not the Conservation Act, but the courts have chosen to hold that section 4 of the Conservation Act applies not just to the Conservation Act itself but to every other Act the Department administers, even if that other Act has its own differently-worded Treaty section! But even so, section 4 only allows Treaty principles to be used in interpreting statutes. Section 4 does not override statutes. It does not say that a part of a statute is invalid because it (allegedly) breaches ‘Treaty principles’. It just says that if there is wiggle room ~ if a statute is capable of more than one meaning ~ then section 4 will  be wheeled in to produce the interpretation more in line with ‘Treaty principles’. But I cannot see that there is any wiggle room here.”

The Sonny Tau matter is a revealing indictment on the status of Maori as guardians. Quite simple, Maori leaders like Sonny Tau should not be entrusted with the privilege and responsibility. And if section 4 of the Conservation Act is being used as an excuse to flout the law and kill a highly popular protected bird, then it should be repealed as a matter of urgency.

That poachers are getting away with killing these birds is a national disgrace. Those killing them should be severely punished, regardless of ancestry – anything less is totally unacceptable. And if the Department of Conservation is turning a blind eye, then it too should be held to account.



Should section 4 of the Conservation Act be repealed?   


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