We don’t play fast and loose with the law

Department of Conservation —  03/08/2018 — 8 Comments

By Lou Sanson, Director-General

DOC takes the responsibility of protecting other countries’ taonga as seriously as protecting our own.

You might have seen a bit of controversy in the news this week over DOC requesting an antique piano have its ivory key tops removed. The piano is a beloved family heirloom and its owners are distraught.

Online Stuff article: July 29 2018.

But the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989 is quite clear: to bring ivory to New Zealand, you need a permit or certificate from the country you’re exporting it from, and it’s the responsibility of the person exporting the goods to get that clearance before they have left the country.

In a nutshell: because the Paton’s piano left the UK without the required CITES documentation, it was brought here illegally.

The Department of Conservation is charged with protecting New Zealand’s native species and is also the enforcing agency for the Trade in Endangered Species Act. We cannot make an exception which could undermine the Department’s ability to uphold international obligations and protect another country’s precious native species.

New Zealand and the UK are part of an international agreement called the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES and the Trade in Endangered Species Act work together to restrict trade in endangered species, aiming to reduce the demand for endangered animals and their parts.

DOC engaged in lengthy discussions with Professor Paton about this piano over the course of 6 months.

We discussed a range of options, including repatriation to the UK to enable the correct certificate to be issued, or gifting. Unfortunately, retrospective documentation cannot be accepted.

Eventually Professor Paton agreed that the ivory tops of the piano keys could be removed. A skilled piano tuner nominated by Professor Paton subsequently took the ivory off and the piano is being returned to him.

This won’t ruin the piano or put it out of action. The ivory part of the key tops were fine veneers (about 1mm thick). Once the replacement resin veneers are fitted the piano will continue to function as before.

The latest CITES report on the status of elephants and ivory trade reveals that in 2016, the overall downward trend of elephant poaching in Africa continues. That same year also had the highest recorded level of seizures of illegally traded ivory since commercial international trade was banned by CITES in 1989.

Elephant and ivory. CITES website.African elephant poaching down, ivory seizures up and hit record high

When individuals don’t get the correct documentation in place for export in advance (which is their responsibility), it does put us in a difficult position.

Around 180 people have items confiscated at New Zealand’s airports every week. Because of the volume of items we process, and to ensure fair decision making, it’s important that DOC staff administering the Act are consistent and fair.

Of course, we realise that the ivory on this piano is old and not actively contributing to the ivory trade – that’s why there wouldn’t have been an issue with its import into New Zealand, had the process laid out by international law been followed.

There are details about the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora available through DOC, NZCS and MPI’s websites, UK freight forwarders and shipping companies and the CITES website too.

Each country has different requirements for imports and exports, so it’s important to check with both the exporting and importing country to make sure you have the right documentation.

Yet some of the reporting on this story has been a bit light on the relevant Act and our international obligations under the CITES.

CNN Tweet. 30 July 2018.

Journalism is a hard profession and it’s important that the press hold agencies like DOC to account. However, in this case of illegally exported material, it’s unfair. People have latched onto the idea that this is an instance of ‘red tape overload’. I understand the allure of that angle but the take out is this: if you have a precious heirloom you want to move, then you must check out the import and export requirements of both countries.

The Trade in Endangered Species Act isn’t a bureaucratic joy ride. This was illegally imported ivory. Ivory trade is regulated for a good reason, and any exceptions in the way DOC deals with illegally traded items could create a knock-on effect.

We take our responsibilities seriously – we’re very conscious of the role we play in sustaining species.

Make sure you’ve specifically checked what is required by your countries of export and import.

Ivory information on the DOC website. 30 July 2018.

I do feel sympathy for the Paton family, who didn’t think that importing a family treasure would be this difficult. They’ve said that they did make attempts to check what was required, and if there was misinformation provided, that’s regrettable.

DOC’s stance on importing ivory is clear. We must continue to work together and communicate openly about things like the Trade in Endangered Species Act and CITES, so people are more aware of New Zealand’s requirements.

DOC has plenty of detail about CITES on our website, and we’re happy to help in advance, but our hands are tied in retrospect.

Please contact us if you need advice.

8 responses to We don’t play fast and loose with the law

    Ross Goongar 16/08/2018 at 10:41 am

    The above article clearly explains that DoC is in no position to be able to change the international laws, and they simply are following the process. They even gave the Paton family options as to avoid the stripping of ivory (yes, expensive, but still options). I am happy that DoC has done what was done, as they simply followed the correct legal process. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, it’s not about red-tape at all.


    I also understand the law. Unfortunately, in this case the law is an ass- for the guidance of wise men etc. The commonsense approach would have been to apply quarantine the item and apply for the certificate, not blind obedience. Doing things this way makes all of us conservators, and the Dept of Conservation look like a bunch of plonkers.


      I totally agree.


      Unfortunately commonsense is not commonplace particularly with public servants.


        I don’t agree with this slur. I work with a lot of public servants the majority of whom are excellent people. Stupid behaviour usually arises from bad processes – which can occur in both private and public sectors. However I agree with other that in this case the law is an ass. If the wrong could be made right by re-exporting the piano back to the UK, then the law should allow a failure to apply for a permit for a heritage item to be corrected without the need for burning up transport dollars and carbon.


    I was born in1949. Just after the second world war. It was normal then to have ivory serviette rings, dice cups and dice. It seemed not to be an issue. Maybe we did not know where ivory came from? Today is a much-enlightened society ( would like to think) I would never ever think of that now. BUT in this case, the person has a treasure that was purchased for its beauty before it became a sacrilegious crime. Give them a break.


    Agreed but still not fair and does little to stop the ivory trade and get support for cites.See the EIA Vanishing Point report. Moreso if so strict on such cases you are alienating the public with laws so draconian. We get blinded by paperwork being correct as this is the only way to get compliance and protect endangered app.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. GM #11 Morons still using cellphones while driving – Gnarled Miscellany - August 10, 2018

    […] How about an heirloom piano having its ivory removed. If you didn’t fill out the correct paper work, it’s not NZ’s fault. What’s your take. Doc Article Here […]

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