13 Feb 2017

Pacific travellers warned of need for permits for tabua

8:40 am on 13 February 2017
The Tabua gifted to Dali Jobson’s daughter which was confiscated at Auckland Airport by Customs under the CITES Act.

The Tabua gifted to Dali Jobson’s daughter which was confiscated at Auckland Airport by Customs under the CITES Act. Photo: Supplied/ Dali Jobson

When Dali Jobson arrived at Auckland Airport in January on a flight from Fiji, she was carrying a cultural heirloom highly regarded by many in Fiji: a polished whale tooth, known as a tabua.

When she reached the customs area, she declared the 13-centimetre long tooth, which was gifted to her 9-year-old daughter, Leilani, by elders in her family's village. But, for lack of a permit, it was confiscated.

Under New Zealand's Trade in Endangered Species Act, artefacts like tabua need an export permit to be brought into the country, something that Ms Jobson did not have.

Now, she's warning others in the Pacific to be more aware of the need for permits before bringing cultural heirlooms into New Zealand.

"I was not aware of the permit process, that there was such a thing you needed to do before," said Ms Jobson, who said her family had declared tabua twice before with no problem.

"I wouldn't risk bringing in an item as precious as that ignoring any notice of needing things like that. So I found it quite surprising and frustrating really, that there wasn't any prior notice, fore-warnings or signs or posters at the Fiji airport."

The Trade in Endangered Species Act was introduced in 1989 after New Zealand became one of 183 countries to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. The treaty covers more than 34,000 species, and monitors and regulates their trade through a system of permits and certificates.

Nine-year-old Leilani was given the Tabua for the first time at her Fijian grandparents home.

Nine-year-old Leilani was given the Tabua for the first time at her Fijian grandparents home. She was wound with 15mtrs pacific material and a tapa and led by her great aunties and my mother up to the house where a great great uncle (Tua) and uncles awaited her arrival to present her with the Tabua. Photo: Supplied/ Dali Jobson

"I had to actually tell my family that this heirloom had been seized and I've forwarded to them some of what is required in order to bring these things through, but it's not worth the risk," said Ms Jobson. "They're passing [the information] on but none of them were aware."

The National Compliance Manager for the Department of Conservation (DoC), Darryl Lew, said more than 100 tabua had been seized at New Zealand's border in the past 15 years because passengers did not have the required permits.

"Sperm whales under the Convention for Trade and Endangered Species are given the highest degree of protection and they're in the same league as those iconic species and animals like rhino and elephants," said Mr Lew.

He added that hundreds of items from the Pacific were seized at the border each year for similar reasons, and while tabua and turtle shells were often forfeited to the crown, they were not the most common items.

"By far and away, the most seized or surrendered items that we intercept, particularly at Auckland International Airport, is coral and shells from the Pacific Islands," he said

"Coral is a listed endangered species - the majority of the coral is and many of the shells. So my advice to New Zealand families and the kids is don't break the coral off the reefs, the reefs are very sensitive ecologically. And even, don't pick it up off the beaches.


Coral Photo: Wikipedia

"Chances are, it's not allowed to be brought back into the country and you'll save yourself the hassle at the airport through the customs."

Passengers who declare items will not be penalised, but there are serious consequences for those who do not.

"There are some sanctions and even up to prosecutions that can be taken if you don't declare those things, particularly for those people that are wilfully concealing them" he explained.

"But I would add that in the first instance, it may be a biosecurity matter with the Ministry of Primary Industries at the border."

To bring tabua into New Zealand, a person needs a permit from the country of origin. So, in Ms Jobson's case, she would have had to apply with the Fiji authorities for an export permit before she left the country, a process she said was not well publicised.

Mahendra Keshwan, from the Fiji Customs Authority, agreed. But he said staff had started working to raise more awareness in Fiji.

"We're putting out a media release, advertisements and even for the travellers there on Fiji Airways - sometimes they play advertisements showing all those requirements, what is required of passengers when they want to buy certain products as such," he said.

"The Ministry of Information in Fiji is engaged in creating awareness on such items probably with the imports and exports as well."

Darryl Lew said DoC had received invitations from around the region to help with training, and the department was active in supporting Pacific countries in raising awareness.

More than 90 percent of the endangered species specimens seized at New Zealand's border was destroyed, said Mr Lew. But since the early 1990s, after a request from Fiji authorities, all tabua is instead collected and stored.

A Tabua seized at New Zealand’s border under the CITES act. It is one of more than 100 in the Department of Conservation’s possession.

Photo: Supplied/ DOC

He said that under the repatriation terms of the treaty, DoC was preparing to return its collection of more than 100 tabua to Fiji.

"I'm very pleased to say that we have an agreement between both management authorities of Fiji and New Zealand that we're going to be repatriating the tabua later this year. The Department of Conservation would like to hope that it's some reasonable formal event and a cultural exchange to hand over the tabua," he said

"The details of that are not confirmed yet but certainly from New Zealand government's point of view the intention would be for New Zealand staff, both from possibly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Conservation, to take the items to Fiji."

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