Dining on kereru

News kereru was served at an iwi leaders' forum which included three senior Government ministers has set the cat among the pigeons.

Coming only a month after Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau, from Northland, was apprehended allegedly with five dead kereru under his jacket at Invercargill airport, focus has turned to this big and beautiful native bird.

On the basis the birds are rare, there can be no justification for killing them.

Despite being special to many Maori, there should be no cultural exceptions to allow them to be served even on the most special of occasions, even when some elders believe a last supper of kereru will assist the journey to the afterlife.

Mr Tau, who is being prosecuted under the Wildlife Act, has acknowledged his ''mistake'', and many Maori are among those appalled by what he did, with a conflicting tikanga (custom or traditions) about guardianship and preservation being cited.

No-one will want kereru to go the way of the moa, and hunting should be completely banned.

There is a difference, though, between killing kereru and eating already dead birds.

This is what appears to have happened in 2013 at an Ohakune marae in the Central North Island.

Between three and five birds over 18 months, we are told, were given by the Department of Conservation to the marae so feathers could be plucked for weaving.

It seem the birds were frozen before they were cooked and mixed with chicken and miro berries and served to the guests.

Doc, certainly, did not envisage these birds would be eaten, and - quite apart from whether it was appropriate - health and hygiene issues have been raised.

Those freezing and later preparing the kereru might well not have known how and when some of them died.

The danger is that once already dead kereru begin appearing on the menu the temptation to kill them will grow.

They have been off the menu since 1921 and there have been 57 convictions for hunting them since 1987.

Fines of up to $100,000 and jail for up to six months are now possible.

One of the ministers at the leaders' forum, Tariana Turia, has defended the marae, saying Maori should not be ''criminalised'' for serving them at special occasions.

The other ministers, Amy Adams and Nathan Guy, have maintained they were completely unaware kereru was served.

There was, apparently, no announcement and this could well be the case.

Given kereru numbers, although well down on what they once were, are reasonable - the species has been officially classified since 2008 as ''not threatened'' - there could well be an argument for a ''cultural take'' in some areas.

The danger, in this case, is the way the rules might easily be abused or flouted.

Run carefully by the appropriate elders and for extra special occasions, this could be feasible - but only under the strictest criteria and enforcement and only in areas where the birds are relatively plentiful.

That would likely exclude Northland, despite the demand there.

Numbers have declined and the North is where most hunting incidents have arisen.

Both the spread and concentration of kereru is especially important because they are the one native bird big enough to swallow the fruit and disperse the seed of some native tree species.

Some will find the thought of killing and eating any native birds abhorrent no matter its numbers. Societies and groups within them have their mores which affect attitudes.

For some, meat of any sort is distasteful.

Others eat dog, whale or horse. Still others recoil at the thought of rabbit.

In the Chathams, buff weka is a popular dish, with the birds, rare on mainland New Zealand, eventually becoming a pest there after being introduced in 1905.

So before people are told they cannot eat a particular animal or bird there have to be strong reasons.

In the case of kereru, these exist.

Kereru throughout New Zealand are too important and not common enough to go on the menu.

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