Taonga Species

A treasured species to Ngāi Tahu

Taonga species are native birds, plants and animals of special cultural significance and importance to Maori. Mōhua are taonga species to Ngāi Tahu, a South Island iwi that’s ancestral land covers most of Te Wai Pounamu (South Island) – excluding a northern segment – and the islands to the south including Stewart Island/ Rakiura and other islands.

Maori developed a sophisticated structure of beliefs and customs about the birds of Aotearoa. The basic myths and traditions came with the immigrants from legendary Hawaiki, the original homelands in the Pacific. Changes the Maori made to these legends were to give them relevance, to make them understandable in the new found natural world. This is shown in the stories of Maui, the man–god hero who is known to islanders throughout the Eastern Pacific. When Maui sought to slay the goddess of death, Hinenuitepo, it was the small local birds such as the fantail, the robin and the whitehead that he took along for company.

It is not known if mōhua were employed in any Maori rituals; very likely they were. In the North Island the mohua’s close relative popokatea (whitehead) were sometimes used in ceremonies performed to ensure the wellbeing of the persons involved. For these rituals the birds were captured and then finally released. Popokatea were also associated with wairua, or spirits. In the Whanganui district whiteheads were believed to be spirits of the dead. In some other regions, their appearance in a forest was a sign that spirits would soon arrive.

Kaumatua Stewart Bull from Oraka Aparima Runanga releases mōhua onto Resolution Island in 2011
(Photo: Jo Whitehead)
The Crown’s settlement with Ngāi Tahu (Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998) included recognition of the special traditional relationship Ngāi Tahu have with taonga species. Ngāi Tahu participates in the management of taonga species such as mōhua in many ways, including representation on species recovery groups. Through the Mōhua Recovery Group a Ngāi Tahu representative can ensure that iwi values are upheld through their conservation management and can contribute to discussions and decisions around the conservation of mohua.

During the year any conservation activities involving mōhua are discussed at iwi representative groups for the various runanga of Ngāi Tahu. The conservation partnership between Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation is utilised when planning any conservation activities involving mōhua and representatives are invited to participate when practical.