We don’t play fast and loose with the law

Department of Conservation —  03/08/2018

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.

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

    Martin Nicholls 18/08/2018 at 11:34 am

    While DoC presented a compelling argument, this whole thing could’ve been managed better, especially considering that people like Michelle Boag were given the opportunity to rail agains them with the usual right-wing line of ‘bureaucracy gone mad’.

    If Prof. Paton had, indeed, been given the opportunity to resubmit the correct CITES action to keep his piano intact, then DoC needed to go on the counter attack and explain how this was done (and not just speaking to the converted in this forum). If DoC’s response was inadequate and unhelpful to him then this, in itself, was unforgivable. While it makes sense to quarantine the piano, there needed to be an effort to encourage Prof Paton to resubmit an application and secure the correct documentation from the UK. Nobody is questioning that the piano in question would meet the criteria for exemption under CITES, but, in the end, one must question the destruction of a valuable cultural item in order the protect the integrity of a piece of legislation that has been unfairly sullied by this whole fiasco.

    As DoC agreed in this response, this is hardly a trade in endangered species issue as it applies to the current situation facing elephants; the piano was over 100 years old when the ivory trade was in full swing. Therefore, it would have been much more sympathetic and better PR if DoC had helped Prof. Paton much more in his efforts to save his piano intact. As it was, DoC sounded like the archetypal unhelpful and obstructionist bureaucrats rather than facilitators.

    An issue related to this is the need to target the horrible culture of the Chinese and Southeast Asians in their mythical belief that the use of poached products, amazingly selected from the most acutely endangered species, will help male virility and longeivity. The apparent willingness of these cultures to drive a great many highly endangered species to extinction needs to be challenged and the New Zealand government and DoC should be at the forefront of this effort.

    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.

      graham limbrick 06/09/2018 at 9:58 pm

      This is the sort of comment one expects from you goons.How does stripping the ivory off
      piano keys protect elephants habitat when you all want to live in a so called democracy
      thats all about population growth and unbridled consumption.


    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.

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