Dining out on the 'kererū affair'

2:25 pm on 24 July 2015

ANALYSIS: It's been a rough week for the national icon, the kiwi. Close cousin kererū has been hogging all the attention and the spotlight is still firmly pointed in his corner.

Satirical artist Toby Morris tackles the controversy over Government housing and the kererū.

Cartoon: RNZ / Toby Morris

It began last month when Northland iwi leader Raniera Sonny Tau was named as the alleged culprit who'd been caught taking protected kererū from Ngāi Tahu in Southland.

According to commentator Annabelle Lee on Morning Report this week, Sonny Tau should have "known better than to go into someone else's tribal rohe (region) and takahe (stamp) on the mana of that tribal rohe by breaking the rahui (ban)".

If he didn't get that message, he certainly should've from the tribe's CEO, Mark Solomon who told TV3 about a conversation with Mr Tau: "The message from Ngāi Tahu is the kererū is an endangered species in our area.

"Yes, at some time in the future when stocks build, we would like to exercise a customary take, but unless those stocks build to a sustainable level, leave them alone".

Then there were the leaked documents Radio New Zealand was handed which showed the "deep disappointment" and "anger" towards Mr Tau from Ngāi Tahu's southern region.

Not only were they disappointed, they said the birds were likely to have been part of a flock that flew regularly from Otautau to Rarotoka and on to Rakiura.

They were recognised in Ngāi Tahu's Treaty Settlement Act as a "taonga species".

These weren't just any birds, these appeared to be a prized flock of kererū, monitored closely by Ngāi Tahu who work extensively with the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Back up north, some elders agreed with Ngāi Tahu's sentiments. Kingi Taurua said he'd "tarnished the iwi" and called a hui.

He told the media it was to "unite" the elders of Ngāpuhi and he wanted "secret hui" to stop taking place.

Ngapuhi leader Sonny Tau

Ngapuhi leader Sonny Tau. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Meanwhile, Sonny Tau was quietly back on a plane to Southland with a group of supporters to face up to locals in Riverton and apologise for his actions.

Enter Kelvin Davis, the MP for Te Taitokerau, who wanted to know who'd paid for the Southland trip. A question the rūnanga, which Mr Tau heads, has yet to answer - well, publicly anyway.

So the poor old #kererū was trending all over social media through no fault of its own, and it wasn't over yet.

Within days, we learned the wee bird, with a declining population, may have been gobbled up by Crown Ministers and tribal heads at a marae in Ōhākune.

Marae spokesperson Che Wilson said three to five birds had been cooked up with chicken and miromiro berries and served to the guests on the special occasion.

The Prime Minister stepped in saying the ministers were "completely unaware of that" at the time and had no idea whether they actually ate the bird.

"I'm sure they can't remember what they ate two years ago" John Key said.

Unlike the allegations surrounding Mr Tau, in this instance, the birds were handed to local iwi Ngati Rangi by DOC.

The department wouldn't be interviewed as it was "trying to assess" the situation and was working with the marae to establish how the birds became kai on the top table.

Dame Tariana Turia was one of the ministers there, but didn't stay for the meal. What did she think of serving up a protected species?

She believed "kererū should be allowed for special occasions."

Photo from - Otari-Wilton's Bush 2012 Photo Competition held by WCC

The kererū Photo: WCC / Jan Kench

Media moved to quizzing Māori leaders around the country on whether they'd ever eaten the bird, and "did they think it was all right to eat an endangered bird?"

Between the uncomfortable "no"s and awkward silences on the other end of the microphones, their messages appeared united.

No one believed that dining on native woodpigeon was OK when the numbers were at risk, but Nanaia Mahuta and Te Ururoa Flavell both agreed sometimes... in very special occasions.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry erupted and told waiting journalists: "Māori ate moa as well... We don't want to eat birds to the brink of extinction, it's not appropriate in this day and age."

So was it appropriate to pass on the bodies of dead natives to iwi?

Had DOC been clear enough around the rules regarding the handovers?

Not according to a Maungarongo Marae spokesperson, who was clear in saying "we didn't know we couldn't eat the birds".

And the possibility that a bunch of iwi leaders and ministers of the crown may have had a feed of native birds at the top table of a private hui only clouded the issue.

Commentator Annabelle Lee said it sent "an unfortunate message to Māori about cultural elitism and a disconnect from those people they're meant to represent."

And the Minister of Conservation let loose on the actions of Maungarongo Marae saying "it's dangerous" and the marae was being "disingenuous" - while admitting she didn't know the whole story and her department was still "assessing" the situation.

This event is by no means over.

Raniera Sonny Tau was due to appear at Invercargill District Court this week but the case has been adjourned until next month.

Until then, the debate will continue over the rights and wrongs of kererū on the menu - cultural icon, Māori taonga, kai a te rangatira, and protected wildlife.

While the courts will decide the fate of Sonny Tau, the bird itself must remain a guarded and unique part of New Zealand.

Any threats to its survival must be addressed without delay.

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