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  • An overhaul of the conservation laws of Aotearoa could allow Māori to resume traditional harvesting practices of some native species.

    This article was originally titled Can customary harvesting of NZ’s native species be sustainable? Archaeology and palaeo-ecology provide some answers and has been republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND 4.0. It was written by Nic Rawlence, Senior Lecturer in Ancient DNA, University of Otago, and Kerry Walton, Researcher, University of Otago, and Richard Walter, Professor of Archaeology, University of Otago.

    Rights: Tony Stoddard – Kererū Discovery

    A flock of kererū

    There are now areas in Aotearoa where kererū are abundant – so could they be sustainably harvested as long as careful guidelines are in place? What do you think?

    This photo was taken at Kaitoke Regional Park, Upper Hutt.

    Aotearoa’s wilderness areas are the jewel in our ecotourism crown. But conservation laws may soon be in for a radical shake-up.

    Recent proposals would, among other things, allow Māori to resume traditional harvesting practices (mahinga kai) on conservation land.

    This has elicited heated emotions from some conservationists, who fear that biodiversity protection will be compromised, as well as from proponents of mahinga kai, who have been alienated from their traditional lands and customs for more than 130 years.

    What does this all mean for our native species?

    The times are a-changing

    Article Two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi guaranteed Māori authority over natural resources. But, with government-administered and legally enforced 'no take' policies covering most conservation land and native species, it is little wonder that many Māori feel alienated from their traditional lands and practices.

    Article Four of the Conservation Act 1987 states the government must give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti. In 2022, in response to these disparities, the Department of Conservation released a report calling for an overhaul of Aotearoa’s conservation laws to have Māori at their heart. This was a move away from “preservation and protection” to “maintenance, enhancement and sustainable use”.

    The report received a lukewarm reception from the government. But it is likely only a matter of time before many of these changes begin to be implemented.

    There are many precedents. Indigenous peoples in many countries lawfully practice traditional harvesting of some protected species. Customary management areas in Aotearoa, such as mātaitai reserves and taiāpure, demonstrate that community and indigenous leadership can be effective at managing resources.

    In many instances, communities may be more motivated to support conservation measures if species can also be used as a resource, such as the harvesting of tītī (sooty shearwaters).

    Rights: Hocken Collection

    Traditional harvesting of tītī

    Māori in Foveaux Strait have practised traditional harvesting of tītī (sooty shearwaters) for hundreds of years.

    Image: ‘Splitting and preparing muttonbirds for the market’, Otago Witness 11 May 1910, p.48. Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

    How do we ensure any harvesting is sustainable in this fast-changing world? Mātauranga (knowledge) and tikanga (custom) Māori, developed over centuries, can provide many of these answers. Combined with scientific methods and data, these bodies of knowledge create a powerful base from which managers can make robust and evidence-based decisions about harvest practices.

    The past is the key to the present

    Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua – I walk backwards into the future, with my eyes fixed on my past.

    Palaeo-ecology, archaeology and matāuranga Māori share the philosophy that we can learn from the past. All three allow us to reconstruct how past ecosystems functioned, how people and species adapted to harvest pressures and climate change, and how we can use this information moving forward.

    Palaeo-ecology and archaeology draw on many tools:

    • radiocarbon-dating anchors archaeological and fossil remains in time
    • stable dietary isotopes help determine diet and where animals fitted into the food chain
    • ancient DNA is used to determine how and when genetic diversity and population sizes changed through time
    • statistical modelling can show how abundance and distributions of plants and animals have changed, and may continue to change in the future.

    This information can paint a picture of how past ecosystems responded to human impacts as well as predicting how future impacts may affect species and populations.

    To harvest or not to harvest?

    Globally, waves of human settlement generally correlated with the rapid extinction of local species. Hunting rates that would have been sustainable for closely related species still culminated in the flightless great auk’s extinction.

    Many of Aotearoa’s plants and animals are slow to reproduce. Ancient DNA analysis and modelling have shown even very low levels of human harvesting resulted in the rapid decline and extinction of numerous New Zealand sea lion lineages. Less than one sea lion killed per person per year, despite a small human population at the time, was enough to seal their fate.

    Rights: Hase, CC BY-4.0

    New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri)

    While sea lions have been harvested in the past, modelling shows that this slow-reproducing species cannot be hunted sustainably.

    Other charismatic, slow-breeding animals that would be similarly vulnerable to even low levels of harvest, even if we managed to restore their populations to moderately 'healthy' levels, include kākāpō, tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin), hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) and matapo (Otago shag).

    Conversely, several locally abundant species, such as weka, kererū and kakīānau (black swan) could probably be sustainably harvested in some areas as long as careful guidelines are in place. The archaeological record shows some of these species were regularly hunted for hundreds of years with little evidence of population decline.

    Looking to the future

    No-one is proposing free-for-all harvesting. Poorly managed and unregulated harvest would be a terrible set-back to recent restoration and conservation efforts. But conservation and mahinga kai principles are not mutually exclusive. Both stand to benefit from ecosystem restoration.

    Palaeo-ecological tools and insights from archaeology can help inform ecosystem restoration projects by establishing which species or lineages were present in a region. They can also facilitate translocations without unexpected ecological consequences or failure due to lack of suitable habitat or food.

    Rights: Public domain

    Weka (Gallirallus australis)

    Weka are an important mahinga kai species. But they are also a predator and can affect other taonga species

    Modern ecosystems in Aotearoa are highly degraded and not comparable to those of centuries ago. They are vulnerable to a range of old and new threats, including invasive predators, habitat loss or modification, and climate change.

    An open-ended ethical question driving much of the controversy is whether endangered species should ever be intentionally killed.

    Some endangered species might eventually sustain a harvest of, at most, only one or two individuals per year. Such exceedingly limited harvest may be enough to preserve some of the tikanga and mātauranga associated with mahinga kai.

    In Te Tiriti, Māori were guaranteed the right to manage and use natural resources. Integrating traditional management practices with a range of scientific tools could enable communities to make evidence-based decisions around what constitutes “sustainable” harvesting. Mahinga kai, science and conservation need not be at odds with one another: they all have a future in Aotearoa.

    Related content

    Explore further mahinga kai – the value of natural resources – plants, birds, fish and other resources that sustain life, including the life of people. There are links to more resources at the bottom of this article.

    The Connected article Counting kākahi is one of several stories about mahinga kai and taonga species available to use in the classroom.

    These articles look at the work of some of our evolutionary biologists and how their research in ancient DNA, palaeontology, archaeology and matāuranga Māori can be used to address a wide range of questions:

    Useful links

    Below are links to information and research referenced in this article:

    See the Department of Conservation Conservation General Policy and General Policy for National Parks regarding Te Tiriti o Waitangi report. The proposals include allowing Māori to resume mahinga kai on conservation land.

    The Fate Of Our National Estate, from North & South, looks at this report from two different sides. Conservationists say this could weaken environmental protections but iwi say it will bring an end to 135 years of alienation from the land. Who is right?

    See the information about Te Tiriti o Waitangi on the Waitangi Tribunal website.

    In 2016 Northland Ngapuhi iwi leader Sonny Tau was fined after shooting protected kereru in Southland.

    The Conservation Act 1987 promotes the conservation of New Zealand resources.

    See the Department of Conservation Conservation General Policy and General Policy for National Parks regarding Te Tiriti o Waitangi report.

    Read about how Fishing with Elders builds these children’s Oji-Cree language, cultural knowledge and writing in this The Conversation article.

    This The Conversation article Traditional hunting gets headlines, but is not the big threat to turtles and dugongs looks at what are the real threats to these iconic Australian species.

    MPI has information on customary fisheries management areas in Aotearoa.

    Discover more about how Indigenous hunters are protecting animals, land and waterways in this The Conversation article.

    Reconstructing the Impact of Humans on Aotearoa New Zealand's Biodiversity, by Nicolas J. Rawlence, et al, Historical Ecology, September 2022,

    Below are examples of tools used by palaeo-ecology and archaeology has been used:

    Read this Hakai Magazine article about how it only took 350 years for hunters to drive the large and diverse great auk seabird population in Iceland into extinction.

    Ancient DNA and archaeological research shows that a unique lineage of sea lions on the Chatham Islands was hunted to extinction by humans.

    New Zealand Birds Online is an easily searchable encyclopaedia of New Zealand birds. Explore this to find out more about the birds of Aotearoa.

    Theresa L. Cole, et al, Ancient DNA of crested penguins: Testing for temporal genetic shifts in the world’s most diverse penguin clade, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol 131, 2019,

    Rawlence, N.J., et al. Geographically contrasting biodiversity reductions in a widespread New Zealand seabird. Molecular Ecology, 24, 2015

    Herse, MR, et al. Effects of customary egg harvest regimes on hatching success of a culturally important waterfowl species. People and Nature, 2021, 3: 499–512.

    Stefanie Grosser, et al. Invader or resident? Ancient-DNA reveals rapid species turnover in New Zealand little penguins. Proceedings of the Royal Society, 2016, Vol 283, Issue 1824,

    Joanna K. Carpenter, et ll. Good predators: the roles of weka (Gallirallus australis) in New Zealand’s past and present ecosystems. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 2021, 45(1):

    In this The Conversation article, discover that though Tuatara are returning to the mainland – feeding the hungry reptiles could be more difficult than expected.

    This Newsroom article looks at how The sixth mass extinction is happening now, and it doesn’t look good for us.


    This article was written by Nic Rawlence, Senior Lecturer in Ancient DNA, University of Otago, and Kerry Walton, Researcher, University of Otago, and Richard Walter, Professor of Archaeology, University of Otago and was originally published in The Conversation on 9 January 2023. Read the original article.

    Rights: The Conversation

    The Conversation

    The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

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      Published 28 February 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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