Few matters excite debate as much as indigenous cultures seeking to preserve traditional practices feasting on endangered species.

In the excitement, three basic considerations have been overlooked.

First, no ethnicity can claim to be more environmentally pure than another. All cultures have destroyed species. What accelerates destruction rates is when species have been isolated in evolutionary terms, are of limited population size, and exist within a restricted habitat.

Each wave of destruction is multiplied by the technology, cultural and/or economic demand for the product, and the associated predators the people bring with them.


In New Zealand, for species such as birds, between the first landings of Maori perhaps 800 years ago or so, and the substantial arrival of Europeans around 1840, was the extinction of around 30 species of which at least 10 were different types of Moa. Post 1840, and in a much shorter space of time, another 16 species have been driven into oblivion by a combined assault of all New Zealanders.

Every end of existence was a great loss for associated parts of the ecosystem, humanity and the species itself with its own intrinsic value.

In contemporary New Zealand, our collective impacts have resulted in 25 bird species, with populations of less than 250 individuals being classified as critically endangered. There are 18 species which are endangered with between 250 and 1000 members, and 34 species are vulnerable to extinction, with between 1000 and 5000 members left.

Of the four species of the native New Zealand pigeon, often known as as kererū, two are already extinct. A third, the Chatham Island pigeon is critically endangered. The fourth species, common throughout much of New Zealand, is on average, vulnerable to extinction and subject to an overall gradual decline. Although in some areas where there are large tracts of forest and predator control, the species is recovering, in some other local areas, it is gone. Although illegal hunting is a concern in some areas, the foremost threat to the survival of this species is rats, stoats, cats and possums.

Second, in addition an obligation to protect endangered species we also have a clear obligation, via both international and domestic responsibilities, to protect many of the cultural traditions of Maori, which those communities still deem relevant.

In many areas, the obligations are mutually reinforcing, as many indigenous groups wish to exercise guardianship over what is threatened and/or valuable.

Reinforcing this overlap is essential, as the foremost way to effective conservation and the enhancement of traditional practices is to meaningfully engage and support local communities to manage and benefit from the resources around them.

Conversely, the best way to destroy a resource is to ensure that the local communities surrounding it are excluded from either its management or benefits.


Third, where the obligation to protect traditional cultural practices that rely upon the consumption of endangered species arises, difficulties appear.

Thankfully, guidance is available from multiple other countries from which the following rules have been adduced over the previous century.

The first rule is that everything that is reasonably possible to save critically endangered species must be done. To allow any action that would knowingly, recklessly or negligently lead to the extinction of any species is indefensible.

This rule applies whether it is the consumption of a critically endangered bird, or allowing seismic testing in the habitat of the last 55 Maui's dolphins that may drive them into areas where nets remain. Cultural needs do not trump the rights to existence. Critically endangered species cannot be consumed.

The second rule is that if an exception is made for a clearly defined traditional group to utilise an endangered species for a need which they still consider necessary, the consumption must be strictly limited, monitored and the population not in further decline, especially, because of the practice.

In short, it must be sustainable. Moreover, it must be done locally, not involve commerciality and meet independently verified critical traditional cultural needs. The strictness by which these rules must be enforced is necessary to guarantee the survivability of the endangered species, and the integrity of processes by which local communities can ensure the ongoing survival of their own critical traditional cultural needs.

It is a very fine balance, but this is not surprising, as this is a very difficult issue. It is, however, one we can solve, reconciling both obligations at the same time.

Alexander Gillespie is the author of Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law (London); and International Environmental Ethics, Law and Policy (Oxford).