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Jawbone of sperm whale stranded in New Zealand stolen: NPR

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

Department of Conservation (New Zealand)

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Department of Conservation (New Zealand)

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

Department of Conservation (New Zealand)

The jaw of a nearly 50-foot sperm whale that washed up on Oreti Beach in New Zealand’s southernmost region was removed with a chainsaw and stolen, according to the New Zealand ministry of conservation.

In a DOC press release issued Monday, officials noted that this act was illegal under the National Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1978. Violators could face fines of up to approximately $150,000 Americans.

“Someone came in with a chainsaw and took the jaw,” 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 skinning the animals.

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

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

Kai Rongoā Muriel Johnstone, a Māori elder, said the runaka, or tribal council, was “extremely upset” that the dead whale on Oreti beach had not “received the respect it was due” according to traditions and Maori customs.

“We know and treat whales as Rangatira (leaders) of the sea and as such deserve appropriate protocols towards them. This includes a farewell address and appropriate karakia (prayers),” Johnstone said . “It is obvious that someone knows the value of these taonga and deliberately removed and stole the jawbone.”

Other stolen whale jaws

This is not the first time the jawbone of a stranded whale has been stolen from a New Zealand beach. In April 2019, DOC issued a press release regarding the illegal removal of a jawbone from a stranded sperm whale on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

“Iwi and DOC have well-established protocols in place around the processing of whale bones to protect the mana (power) of the whale,” said Tim Rochford, president of Makaawhio at the time. “It is extremely disappointing that anyone would disrespect these protocols and our taonga.”

Monday’s DOC press release also states that a similar incident occurred in 2015 when another sperm whale washed up on Oreti Beach and someone removed its jaw.

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

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