Moa for sale: trade in extinct birds' bones threatens New Zealand's history

Skeletons fetch thousands, but sales put swathes of environmental and climate data out of reach of scientists

Paleontologists are begging the New Zealand government to immediately halt the trade in the priceless bones of the extinct moa bird, fearing that millions of years of science is disappearing as entire skeletons are broken up and sold over the internet or smuggled overseas.

Moa, giant flightless birds which stood up to 3.6m tall, were endemic to New Zealand and became extinct about 500-600 years ago. When they were first discovered by Europeans they were considered a scientific marvel and kickstarted a global frenzy, as museums competed to acquire specimens.

Under New Zealand law it is legal to sell moa bones and egg shells found on private land. There is no requirements for experts to sample or study the bones, or survey the site, as is standard practice in the UK and many other countries. In November a private collector in Britain purchased an entire moa skeleton for $34,000 in West Sussex.

Although it is illegal to sell or collect moa bones from public conservation land, experts and the department of conservation say looters routinely plunder caves and swamps for remains, which in their entirety can fetch between $20,000 and $50,000, or between $70 and $350 per bone.

There have been incidents of entire skeletons appearing in European auction houses with suspect or unknown origins, according to the moa expert Trevor Worthy.

English biologist Sir Richard Owen with a giant moa skeleton
English biologist Sir Richard Owen with a giant moa skeleton.
Photograph: Alpha Historica/Alamy Stock Photo

Trade Me, New Zealand’s version of eBay, has hosted hundreds of moa bone and egg sales over the last five years, and requires no evidence or documentation from sellers that their bones were collected legally.

In 2018, 27 sales of moa bones were recorded on the website. In a blogpost responding to complaints about the sales, the company said: “We are OK with the sale of moa bones, due to the fact they are now extinct.”

“As such, sellers of moa bones are no longer contributing to their decline … there are some genuine collectors out there and this sort of stuff is pretty cool for them.”

The Department of Conservation’s principal compliance officer, Toni Twyford, said his office was aware of looters selling bones and egg shells illegally online, but evidence was “extremely difficult” to obtain and no prosecutions had occurred.

Concerned museum curators and palaeontologists say bones sold to private collectors are essentially “garbage”, as without the correct handling and storage they will disintegrate in a matter of decades.

Lost history

When moa bones are lost so too is the rich DNA and scientific data they hold, says paleontologist Richard Holdaway, including climate and temperature records, soil and environmental information and clues to evolutionary history.

“I feel desperately sad that New Zealand hasn’t grown up enough past the pioneer stage and accepted that when you have a piece of land you have responsibility rather than lordship,” says Holdaway.

“Private sales should be banned. Moa bones do not belong to individuals, they belong to the country.

“It should be deeply concerning because they are a finite resource. There are never going to be any more Moa – every bone sold and destroyed is one less than there will ever be.”The minister of conservation, Eugenie Sage, said she was awaiting advice from DoC on how to tighten the legislation as she was aware that illegal trading was common and had “increased” with the rise of internet trading websites.

“New regulations that prohibited the sale of moa bones, egg shells and the remains of other extinct species, except with the consent of the minister of conservation, are one potential option,” said Sage.

The Department of Conservation had been instructed to provide advice to the minister on the most effective policy response by early next year.

Contributor

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

The GuardianTramp

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