MPI apologises after whale-bone taonga seized at Customs

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has apologised for an incident where a whale bone necklace was seized at customs at Wellington Airport. The owner of the treasured taonga says the experience was upsetting.

Upon his return home to NZ from a holiday, Jake Aitken had his taonga seized at the airport by MPI customs officers.

He said, “The customs agents saw the taonga and thought that it might be from an endangered whale species and so they wanted to investigate that.”

“They asked me to sign that document to say that I was surrendering my taonga to them so they could then pass it on to the DOC to investigate the taonga and say whether I could have it back eventually or whether it was going to be destroyed.”

Aitken says that due to the personal significance of the taonga, the experience was shocking.

“This taonga was given to me by my mother, my sister and some other members of my whānau. It was carved specifically for me for my 18th birthday and represents my two older brothers who both passed away when they were young children.”

Aitken claims the item was confiscated by MPI staff on behalf of the Department of Conservation who administer the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989.

Hilary Aikman, Director of National Operations at DoC, says in order to ensure that endangered species are protected, and comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Endangered Species Officers are empowered to investigate specimens leaving or entering the country that could be from endangered species.

However Aitken says the MPI officers failed to provide a full explanation or access to the act and that they operated with a lack of cultural sensitivity.

Andrew Spelman of MPI states that;

"We are sorry that Mr Aitken had an experience at the border which has clearly upset him. We have received a complaint about how the matter was handled by MPI staff and we are looking into it. We impress on all of our front line staff the importance of treating all travellers with respect, including acknowledging sensitivities around taonga."

DoC advise people travelling internationally with personal items made from endangered species, such as whalebone, to contact them for advice on CITES permit requirements and whether a permit is required for your item.