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The jawbone of washed-up whale in New Zealand was removed with chainsaw and stolen

New Zealand Department of Conservation staff assess the remains of a deceased sperm whale.
Department of Conservation (NZ)
New Zealand Department of Conservation staff assess the remains of a deceased sperm whale.

The jawbone of a nearly 50-foot sperm whale that washed ashore on Oreti Beach in New Zealand's southernmost region has been removed with a chainsaw and stolen, according to New Zealand's Department of Conservation.

In a DOC press release on Monday, officials noted that the act is illegal under the country's Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1978. Offenders could face fines up to around $150,000 U.S. dollars.

"Someone has come along with a chainsaw and taken the jawbone," said DOC Senior Ranger Rosalind Cole.

Due to marks on the remaining whale bones and tire tracks leading to the carcass, the DOC believes people removed the jawbone rather than scavenging animals.

While the act is illegal, it's also considered disrespectful to the iwi, a social unit of the Māori people indigenous to the island nation. Whale bones are considered prized treasures, also known as taonga, in Māori culture.

Earlier this year, the indigenous leaders from New Zealand, along with leaders from Tahiti, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, signed a treaty granting whales legal personhood. Māori conservationist Mere Takoko told NPR the treaty lays the groundwork for further legislation to protect the whales, or as the Māori call them, tohorā — the sacred ancestors of indigenous Polynesians.

Kai Rongoā Muriel Johnstone, a Māori elder, said the rūnaka, or tribal council, is "extremely upset" that the dead whale on Oreti Beach was not "offered its due respect" according to Māori traditions and customs.

"We know and treat whales as Rangatira (Chiefs) of the sea and as such deserve appropriate protocols said over them. This includes a farewell address and appropriate karakia [prayers]," Johnstone said. "It is obvious that someone knows the value of these taonga and has deliberately removed and stolen the jaw."

Other stolen whale jawbones

This is not the first time the jawbone of a beached whale has been stolen from a beach in New Zealand. In April 2019, the DOC publisheda press release about the illegal removal of a jawbone from a sperm whale washed up on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island.

"Iwi and DOC have well established protocols around the treatment of whale bone that are in place to protect the mana [power] of the whale," said Tim Rochford, the chairman of Makaawhio at the time. "It is extremely disappointing that someone would disrespect these protocols and our taonga."

The DOC press release from Monday also said a similar incident happened in 2015 when another sperm whale washed ashore at Oreti Beach and someone removed the jawbone.

In the 2015 press release, DOC officials noted that it's not uncommon for whales to wash ashore on South Island beaches. "A range of factors can cause these incidents and, depending on the condition of the carcass, it's often difficult to determine the cause of death," said Juzah Zammit-Ross, a DOC biodiversity ranger at the time.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Clare Marie Schneider
Clare Marie Schneider is an associate producer for Life Kit.