Neil Silverwood

Tomb raiders

Poachers are raiding fragile caves to make a quick buck flogging moa bones to the highest bidder. Is it right?

Written by       Photographed by Neil Silverwood

“This is the cave,” says Greg Pickford, and at first, I don’t believe him. It’s the merest slot in the earth, just wide enough to take my ample frame. His wife, Alison, reads the apprehension on my face.

“This isn’t rock climbing,” she says. “Feel free to use your knees, elbows, whatever gets the job done.”

Bless him, Greg produces a rope from his pack and wedges himself into the slot as an anchor. I edge into the fissure. My descent into the underworld is a graceless, stuttering bum slide. It’s muddy, steep and slippery, but on a hot November day, the cool of this place is delicious.

Greg follows me down, dexterous and nimble. We bend double for only a few footsteps before, to my relief, we can stand upright. And then some: I find the walls in the beam of my headtorch and trace them upwards, over ghostly white silica caressed into billows by water and eons. There are nodes, like tiny white berries growing out of bare rock. Greg follows my gaze: “That’s cave coral,” he says.

These might be calcite, aragonite or gypsum—the knobbly creation of the winds that sometimes race through here, stealing away the moisture and leaving base elements behind. I crane my neck, and the walls arch, Gothic and gorgeous, to a ceiling maybe 15 metres above our heads, riven by siliceous veins.

We pick our way through and around a small stream. As we go, Greg and Alison lay out fresh string lines (the old ones have been eaten by rats), to guide future visitors around the cave’s most delicate and vulnerable treasures. And here, in a small heap against one wall, are some of them: two huge tibias, a tarsus, and a femur.

A moa pelvis, with the tail at top, held at Te Papa. Moa skeletons were bargaining chips that allowed some New Zealand museums to establish, trading them for other artefacts from around the world.

We’ll never know how this moa ended up here, but as the day beams through a slot high above, I fancy the moa fleeing through the forest, grazed and blinded by brushwood, senses blunted by panic as a vast shadow darkens the path of escape. I imagine the swooping menace of Hieraaetus moorei—Haast’s massive eagle—its talons grasping and missing, only for the ground to vanish beneath the moa’s feet. Then, a headlong plunge into the long dark. Its death watch was the metronome of dripping water.

This moa died alone in the dark, but it was a citizen of te ao mārama—the world of light. It was a child of Tāne, one line interlaced with a million others that together represent the woven universe. Whakapapa has not forgotten it. When the long journeys of bloodlines are recounted, they speak to an inextricable bond—wairuatanga—between people and nature.

“That moa was part of our whānau,” says Barney Thomas of Ngāti Rārua, and pou kura taiao, environmental ethics adviser, to the Department of Conservation (DOC). “That’s whakapapa.”

[Chapter Break]

“Moa foot bone from smaller moa. Great piece for display cabinet,” reads Donkeykong’s advert on TradeMe. The sale has a day to run. The reserve has been met, and someone is prepared to pay $152 for a shard of evolutionary history the size of a pair of sunglasses. This might be legal. Or it might not.

If Donkeykong had found that fragment on private land, they were doing nothing wrong. But experts say most moa remains rest in protected places—public conservation land or archaeological sites—and if that’s where the bone came from, a law has been broken. The trouble is, there’s no easy way to know. If this were Britain or Australia, Donkeykong would be compelled to have the bone checked over by an expert before offering it for sale. Here in New Zealand, the law demands no similar safeguard.

Regardless of its provenance, if the buyer was from overseas, the transaction would be illegal. In November 2018, a private collector in Britain paid $34,000 for an entire moa skeleton, sold through Summers Place Auctions in West Sussex. Good skeletons can fetch up to $50,000; individual bones, between $70 and $350 a piece.

The search continues in our caves today, with the bulk of exploration happening in the past seven decades. Harm has so far been kept to a minimum, but cavers now fear that looters won’t show the same concern for these fragile wonders.

Experts doubt all these items are being discovered by chance on private land. Instead, they say, they’re likely loot from the organised plunder of protected sites.

TradeMe is the clearinghouse of choice for moa-bone merchants, and the company has dismissed pleas from Māori and museum curators to shut down what they consider to be nothing less than tomb raiding.

“To think of these things being stolen, broken up and carved up into all sorts of trinkets, ornaments,” says kaumātua Mairangi Reiher, “it’s a violation of the taonga that we hold in reverence. To us, they are taonga tuku iho [heritage], and we’ll never get them back. The history is lost.”

Palaeontologists feel the same way. Every moa fragment that ends up online is a piece of a jigsaw lost, says Colin Miskelly, Te Papa’s curator of vertebrates—a missed chance to better understand the biology of those long-gone birds.

“The context of where those bones were found is all-important,” he says. “We’ll never know what other species were present at that site, and we’ve lost the opportunity to sample pollen that could have told us about the vegetation there. There may have been wood at that deposit that we could’ve carbon dated.”

Comparative anatomy suffers, too. Miskelly says whole skeletons are especially valuable, because they can tell over time the story of how, and when, a species became flightless, or adapted to geological upsets such as volcanism.

“People who are taking bones to sell as curios are unlikely to find every single bone at that site, so we lose vital parts of that skeleton, which is critical if you’re trying to compare the skeletal proportions of birds around the country.”

Because traders are suspected to be lying about where they find bones, says Miskelly, curators are wary of trusting any information—even that which could be genuine—about the provenance of moa remains.

[Chapter Break]

If I were to stash these bones in my pack and take them home to sell, I could be punished with maybe five years in prison, or a $300,000 fine. But I’d be the first.

“Scientists have been able to work out that many items being offered for sale have been recently removed from their original sites,” says Michael Gee, senior policy adviser at DOC. Notwithstanding that, 10 investigations have delivered not one successful prosecution.

“Once bones have been removed, it’s extremely difficult to prove they were taken from an archaeological site or public conservation land.”

Unless they still carry diagnostic dirt on them that can be matched to a site, the case is lost, along with all that precious DNA, climate and temperature records, and clues to evolutionary history.

DOC says it’s stepped up surveillance around known moa caves, and even erected security gates at some, but Gee won’t discuss what trail cameras have so far revealed. My cave guides, Greg and Alison Pickford, say bones have been going missing from sites they know well. In October, a TradeMe listing appeared for a moa skull. When a concerned caver from the New Zealand Speleological Society visited the seller to inspect the wares, they noted deposits on the skull consistent with its having been recently taken from a cave.

“There has always been an ethic of respect and care among cavers,” says Greg, who warned me against even using a walking pole on our trip, to avoid any damage to the cave. “If you break a sapling in the forest, another one will grow. If you break a cave formation, that damage might last a thousand years.”

Down here, where the seasons are muffled, time slows to a crawl.

Caves are natural museums, where the forces of decay are stifled. Left undisturbed, these moa bones might survive for many hundreds of years. Brought recklessly into the light, they will soon disintegrate. Intact crypts like this one are now scarce, and the location of this deposit (and others photographed for this story) remains secret.

“These things took millions of years to form,” he adds, which is why his fold doesn’t want cave looters blundering through them.

“Cave conservation happens on a completely different timescale,” says Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) president Jan Finlayson, “and when the remains of ancient things are taken away, there’s no redemption possible.”

FMC represents a variety of outdoors groups, including cavers, and it petitioned TradeMe years ago to halt its moa-bone trade.

“If you consider a human cemetery, people naturally show the respect that’s due to such a place. It’s hard to understand why that doesn’t extend to these caves, which are effectively tombs. This is about the collective self-restraint we all need to exercise if we’re to preserve anything worth having.”

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says she knows of moa bones being stolen from protected sites in Northland, King Country, Taranaki, Golden Bay and the West Coast.

“There have been disturbances at those sites noted by regular visitors, and it’s likely those bones were subsequently sold,” she says. “There have been more than 350 moa bones and eggshells offered for sale since 2010.”

Museum curators have also been imploring TradeMe to halt sales of moa bones and eggshells.

Moa leg bones, still joined to one another, lie in a precious midden. Found only recently, this skeleton is a trove of vital information for comparative anatomists, and for Māori, a revered tupuna.

“We know that protected sites are being looted by people who just want some quick money,” says Mike Dickison, former curator of natural history at the Whanganui Regional Museum, “and TradeMe could shut the whole dodgy moa-bone trade down tomorrow if they wanted to.”

Miskelly recounts a fruitless meeting with TradeMe years ago: “They were adamant that they follow the law.”

That remains the company’s position today: it declined to comment for this story. In the past, TradeMe has said that moa bones make up a tiny fraction of the site’s listings. There were 27 listings on the site during 2018, and 11 in 2019 at the time of writing.

TradeMe has also said that if moa bones weren’t sold on its site, they’d simply be sold elsewhere. Miskelly doubts that.

“There are established auction houses who have known clients and collectors, so there would be a small amount of trade between people with extensive private collections, but without a doubt TradeMe is the single major outlet for bone sales.”

The law becomes more specific where moa bones have been used or modified by Māori. In this case they are regarded as taonga tūturu, one of nine categories defined by the Protected Objects Act 1975. In an October 3 Trust and Safety blog post, TradeMe offered guidance to the finders of taonga tūturu, pointing out that finds after 1976 were automatically the property of the Crown. “If you’ve just discovered taonga tūturu, take it to any public museum within 28 days, and they’ll make sure it finds its way to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) safely. Alternatively, you can just go to MCH directly.”

Jamie Wood, a Landcare Research palaeontologist, squirms through an Otago cave, guided by a new ethos of care. Historically, most new finds were removed from caves for study: nowadays, however, the bulk of research is done below ground.

It provided a flow chart for sellers, setting out the steps to determine whether an item was taonga tūturu or not. The advice was lifted from the ministry’s Protected Objects policy, which states that if the item relates to Māori history and culture, was “used by Māori” and is more than 50 years old, then it is, by law, a taonga.

That means the finder has 28 days to take it to a public museum with appropriate expertise, which will duly advise MCH, which will in turn assign the item a registration number. It will then notify local iwi of the find; they have 60 days to lodge a claim of ownership.

If they don’t, the finder becomes the legal owner, and right about here, things get confusing. Only licensed dealers and auction houses can sell taonga tūturu on TradeMe, and only to registered collectors or public museums. In addition, the goods must carry a certificate of examination from an authorised museum, but TradeMe does not require that certification, or the licensing arrangements of sellers and buyers, or evidence that moa bones were collected legally.

Dickison says museums routinely refuse private requests to verify moa bones that they suspect are destined for TradeMe: “Sellers will lie anyway, and say that this bone has been authenticated.”

On its blog, TradeMe offers this concession: “We encourage sellers of taonga tūturu to do their research. If an item seems to have a ‘rightful’ home, we’d love to see it get there first, before it’s listed on site.”

For Ngawhakaara Coldwell, a Te Ātiawa kaumātua, the only rightful home of moa bones is where their real owner lay down to die.

“We treat them as family. There are rituals around these things. We would never think of selling them. What’s really devastating is that all the people of today can see is dollar signs.”

“This is about morals,” says Barney Thomas. “They’re trading in things they shouldn’t be, just because there’s no law to say they can’t. From a kaitiaki perspective, we would ask that TradeMe desists. They’re trading in our tūpuna.”

It appears that only regulation would grant Thomas’s request. In fact, that’s under way as you read this—Minister Sage has asked DOC to advise on a policy response for moa bone sales. It’s pending public consultation.

Famously robust, moa leg bones are often the last trace of a bird, after smaller bones have succumbed to the passage of time. The largest of these shanks—now held in Te Papa—is 700 millimetres long and from North Island giant moa, Dinornis novaezealandiae.

As it stands, most parts of the Wildlife Act 1953 protect only those species clinging to existence, but there is a general determination to brick up the hole in the law.

And: “There is actually a provision in that Act,” says Miskelly, “never used, that relates to the restriction of trade in extinct species, too.”

And here it is, on page 102: section 72 (2): “…it is hereby declared that regulations may be made …for all or any of the following purposes: (l) regulating or prohibiting the purchase and sale of the bones and other parts and the eggs of moa or other species that are generally believed to be extinct.”

Miskelly points out that because section 72 is already in effect, the outcome could be achieved simply by Cabinet approving regulations—the issue wouldn’t need to be debated in Parliament. It also means public consultation wouldn’t be required. Miskelly says curators would have preferred this, so as not to trigger a spate of panic sales before the law changed. “We argued very strongly that this should be done quietly and discreetly, but that’s not how politics works nowadays.”

Like the nation’s museums, FMC is frustrated by a government agency apparently sleepwalking towards a “tragic loss”, says Jan Finlayson.

“The Department of Conservation is working at a pace similar to the growth of cave formations. They need to get a wriggle on. When these things are gone, they’re lost forever.”

“I know it’s frustrating for people,” says Sage, “how long democratic processes can take, but the discussion document will be going out shortly, subject to Cabinet approval. Legislation always takes time; it’s not done at the stroke of a pen.”

Sage confirms new regulations would need only Cabinet approval, but points out that there “first needs to be definitions of key words and provisions in those regulations. How do you define buying and selling? What constitutes a study skin? How do we provide for trade in those? A blanket ban would just cause problems. When the regulations are implemented, there can be no arguments or loopholes left behind.”

Before I filed this story, I took one last look on TradeMe. Here’s a “genuine moa bone” moulded into a green resin—fake pounamu—and being sold as a necklace. The bidding has reached nine dollars.

“It’s repulsive,” says Makere Chapman, of Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Tama, and Golden Bay liaison officer for matters conservation. “It’s not their tūpuna who are being taken away and sold.

“These birds lived when our ancestors lived, so we regard those birds as ancestors, too. This is what the Treaty is supposed to protect, from our perspective—respect, and aroha for things past.”

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