Taniwha are a "pre-European method of resource management", a history professor says, and would be less likely to ridiculed if they were seen in this context.

After Auckland Council Maori Statutory Board member Glen Wilcox advised council of the taniwha Horotiu who lives under the Auckland CBD, sparking fears the spiritual creature could threaten the proposed rail loop under the central city.

However representatives of Auckland's Ngati Whatua hapu have assured mention of the taniwha should not be taken as a threat to a $2.4 billion rail tunnel.

AUT Maori studies professor Paul Moon said the role of taniwha is misunderstood.

Dr Moon attributed part of the problem to the portrayal of taniwha as some sort of indigenous swamp-dwelling dragon.

"Traditionally, taniwha existed in some circumstances as a warning," he said. "They were invoked in order to get people to pause from a particular activity and force them to think about the processes, issues, and consequences of that activity. Taniwha were part of the pre-European method of resource management in New Zealand.

"Taniwha are placated only when all the issues associated with the place where they reside have been adequately resolved."

In 2002, Transit New Zealand agreed to slightly reroute the Waikato Expressway near Meremere after a local hapu said the planned route cut through the domain of the taniwha Karu Tahi.

Later that same year a Northland iwi was unsuccessful in stopping a prison being built at Ngawha because of a taniwha.

- NZ Herald staff