Moa integral to district’s past, future

They may be well and truly dead, but there is still a future for moa in North Otago. Shannon Gillies reports.

How humans first interacted with moa, the impact of the legal trade of moa bones, what role moa played in North Otago’s past and what position they could hold in the district’s future were themes touched on in a talk by a leading moa expert who visited Oamaru recently.

Whanganui Regional Museum’s natural history curator, Mike Dickison, led a crowd of about 40 people through his views on the extinct giant bird during a specialist talk at Oamaru’s Forrester Gallery.

He left with pretty positive views on how the extinct creature could make its mark in the Waitaki District Council’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the gallery, in which it, North Otago Museum and the Waitaki District Archive will be merged on the gallery site.

Museum curator Chloe Searle said ideas for permanent exhibitions were being discussed at the moment and the moa of North Otago was a promising idea.

The way the birds lived and affected their environment, and their encounters with humans, all made up a rich story in North Otago’s natural history that could be shown in the new centre, she said.

Sites of human activity that related to moa in North Otago included Awamoa Creek, south of Oamaru, believed to date from the mid-1300s and used by Maori to prepare and cook moa; and the Waitaki River mouth,  believed to be one of the first human settlements in the country.

Dr Dickison agreed moa were a really important part of North Otago’s story.

Whanganui Regional Museum Natural History curator Mike Dickison talks about the importance of moa...
Whanganui Regional Museum Natural History curator Mike Dickison talks about the importance of moa to North Otago’s history. Photo: Shannon Gillies

"It’s impossible to understand the human history of this area without understanding the moa — the birds that used to live here; how they disappeared, and how the landscape has changed.

"We’re very privileged here to have very fragile, precious archaeological sites on the coast. Some of them are national treasures that tell the story. They are very much in danger, though — in danger of climate change, they’re threatened by well-meaning  amateur  collectors, and it’s really important that we all work together to try and safeguard these sites which most people just overlook."

A particular bugbear for him was the rise of fossil trades online.

"There’s a thriving trade in moa bones online. It is actually technically legal to collect and sell moa bones in some circumstances. There’s a loophole in the law that means they’re not protected.

"They can’t be taken from public land. They can’t be sent overseas, but many people now seem to be pulling them out of caves or swamps — being deceitful about their origins and selling them for a quick buck ... This worries me because I think moa bones are part of our natural heritage that belongs to all New Zealanders and it’s just wrong to start trading them."

He believed legislators were in a position to move and block the trade.

"I think there’s actually provision for the law, the Wildlife Act, which currently protects us from trading in native birds, to be extended to help protect moa bones as well. I know other fellow museum curators feel the same way and we’re hoping we can make this happen."

Spokesman for Trade Me James Ryan said that company only focused on the sale of "legitimate moa bones".

"We enforce the Protected Objects Act 1975, particularly section 5, which protects unlawfully exported historically significant New Zealand objects.

"We don’t see a lot of moa listings sold on our site. If we do see a member listing a number of moa listings, we will ask them to verify they are legitimate."


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