Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Kauri seeds of doubt

Imported trees belong to existing species, not new one, claims ecologist who faces court.

Ecologist Graeme Platt faces charges over seeds he allegedly imported from Vanuatu and trees sent to the Auckland Botanic Gardens. Photo / Michael Craig
Ecologist Graeme Platt faces charges over seeds he allegedly imported from Vanuatu and trees sent to the Auckland Botanic Gardens. Photo / Michael Craig

An outspoken ecologist has been charged with possessing illegal trees - trees he insists don't exist.

The Ministry of Primary Industries alleges 73-year-old Graeme Platt is responsible for illegally importing seeds of an exotic kauri tree banned in New Zealand, and growing 30 of the trees at the Auckland Botanic Gardens.

Nearly two years ago, clad only in his underwear, Platt was startled to encounter biosecurity officers, accompanied by a police officer, raiding his Albany property.

The pensioner called the biosecurity officers "maggots". The officers took away plants and computers.

The Herald on Sunday reported Platt believed they were looking for Pacific Islands' native Agathis silbae. He insists the tree, which is a prohibited import as it wasn't in the country before a 1997 ban was enforced, is actually the Agathis macrophylla, a Kiwi stalwart since early European settlement.

The Agathis silbae was discovered by John Silba in Vanuatu, though Platt claims it is an Agathis macrophylla - known as the Pacific kauri, from Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and widely planted in New Zealand for more than 150 years.

Platt blames the confusion on "idiot New Yorker" Silba, who Platt says mistakenly thought he had discovered a new kauri species.

Now, Platt will have his day in court.

Late last month, he was charged under the Biosecurity Act of possession or control of unauthorised goods, and failing to tell the ministry about an organism not normally seen or detected in New Zealand.

A third charge, of knowingly, recklessly or negligently possessing an imported new organism, was laid under the Hazardous Substance and New Organism Act.

If convicted of possession or control of unauthorised goods - Platt faces up to five years in jail and a fine of $100,000.

The father and grandfather indicated this week he would defend the charges. He will appear in Manukau District Court on July 3.

Ministry north region investigations manager David Blake said charges had been laid against two people in relation to Operation Silbae, but would not comment further.

The Auckland Botanic Gardens and the homes of the gardens' curator, Jack Hobbs, were raided simultaneously with Platt's property, but Hobbs said this week he had not been charged. A third person raided by the ministry as part of the investigation, Clive Higgie of Paloma Gardens in Wanganui, confirmed in April he had been charged with possessing a prohibited Australian fig tree.

- Herald on Sunday

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