Repatriation Of Tabua Back To Fiji By NZ 'A Rare Event'

More than 90% of specimens seized in NZ are destroyed but after an early 90's request from Fiji authorities all tabua had instead been collected and stored in the hopes that they might one day be repatriated

By Indira Stewart

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, May 29, 2017) –The repatriation of nearly 150 whales' teeth to Fiji today is being called a "rare event" by the Secretary General of an international convention protecting endangered species.

The teeth, known in Fiji as tabua, are highly regarded cultural gifts and are being handed over to Fiji's Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, this morning by New Zealand Department of Conservation staff in a cultural ceremony in Fiji.

The 146 teeth had been seized at New Zealand's border over the last 15 years under The Trade in Endangered Species Act.

It's not commonly known around the Pacific, but an export permit is needed to take tabua overseas because it is one of 34,000 species covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

More than 90 percent of specimens seized at New Zealand's border under CITES are destroyed, but since the early 1990s, after a request from Fiji authorities, all tabua had instead been collected and stored by DOC, in the hopes that they might one day be repatriated.

Staff in DoC's Kahui Kaupapa Atawhai team blessed the items with a Karakia in a low-key ceremony last week, to release the tabua before they were flown back to Fiji over the weekend.

DoC's Director of Strategic Partnerships, Joe Harawira, accompanied the tabua to Fiji and said it's great to see them finally being returned to their motherland.

"We understand that these are very valuable to the people of the land," he said

"So it's our responsibility to be able to return these tabua back to Fiji."

Tabua is traditionally made into a necklace, gifted as a cultural heirloom and passed down in families through generations.

Dali Jobson declared her daughter's 13-centimetre long tabua at customs in January when she returned from a trip to Fiji.

The tabua was gifted to her nine-year-old daughter Leilani by village elders in a formal ceremony and the family were devastated when it was confiscated at the border.

She was relieved to hear about the repatriation.

"I'm really grateful. Also, just pleased that they recognised the cultural significance of the tabua," said Ms Jobson

"Having it repatriated back to home is comforting for me as a Fijian living away from Fiji, that these things are protected and kept safe."

Wendy Jackson, the head of New Zealand CITES Authority, said the repatriation is the first of its kind for DoC.

"We're pleased that we're able to do this and it's such a better outcome I think for conservation, for public awareness, for understanding the relationship between people, culture, nature,"

"I just think it's fantastic and it fits with what DoC's about."

John Scanlan is the Secretary General of CITES based in Geneva and has flown to Fiji to attend the repatriation ceremony.

Mr Scanlan said repatriations under the convention are rare and the cultural significance of today's event is huge.

"It's an extraordinary event because it's blending culture with people with wildlife, in a way we don't often see," he explained

"At the same time we've seen that the repatriation was necessary because people were crossing international borders with tabua without getting the necessary permits. So it also gives us an opportunity to raise some awareness."

The repatriation ceremony kicks off a week-long regional workshop, attended by delegates from around the South Pacific, to raise awareness of CITES and improve implementation of it around the region.

Information including the ownership details of each tabua prior to being seized, have also been sent back to Fiji but it is not yet known what the government plans on doing with the heirlooms.

Dali Jobson hopes her and others who have had their precious tabua seized at New Zealand's border may be able to collect them in Fiji.

Radio New Zealand International
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Great story. Well done New Zealand! It makes Fiji very proud to have great neighbour like you. Aziz

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