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Indigenous leaders seeking legal personhood for whales

Kaumaiti Nui, Travel Tou Ariki

Avarua, COOK ISLANDS — A cetologist who has been researching Cook Islands whales for the past three decades says she is proud of the indigenous leaders for taking a stand for the conservation of to'orā (whales) across the region.

(A cetologist is a zoologist that deals with whales, dolphins, and porpoises.)

Earlier this month, Aotearoa's Kiingi Tuheitia and the Cook Islands Kaumaiti Nui Tou Ariki have signed the He Whakaputanga Moana in Rarotonga that aims to give to'orā more robust protections that are recognised internationally.

The entire body of the traditional House of Ariki (Cook Islands body of traditional chiefs) have supported the declaration acknowledging the cultural significance of whales and their role in the ocean's ecosystem.

It also seeks to protect the rights of whales to migrate freely, salvage dwindling populations, establish marine protected areas, and set-up a dedicated fund for whale conservation.

House of Ariki's head Travel Tou Ariki Cook Islanders had a responsibility to protect the creatures that dwell within the ocean.

"This ocean belongs to the people of the Cook Islands. The whale is very important to all of us. That is why we stand up to protect the look after what we have in our ocean," Ariki said.

Nan Hauser, who has spent the last 30 years studying Cook Islands whales, told RNZ Pacific indigenous leaders have made "a big statement".

"It gives a really big statement and personhood to these whales that travel through the Southern Ocean to feed in Antartica and I'm hoping that it will be a voice to protect them."

After 23 years of advocating for legislation, Hauser said this is a step in the right direction.

Hauser has a special permit which allows her to get up close to the whales for her research purposes.

She has been worried about other tour operators getting too close to whales in recent years saying whales can become aggressive when they feel harassed.

"There's no real legislation yet that will stop people from harassing the whale's whether it be driving jet skis around them in circles or jumping on them."

Hauser said many young ones are eager to swim very close to whales for selfies and this can be invasive of their personal space.

"I don't think they're necessarily respecting the spirit of that whale, but I understand why people would want to do it cause its very cool to be underwater with a whale.

"But it's their backyard and we really need to respect them."


Earth Council Alliance chairperson Lelei LeLaulu said whales are culturally significant in the myths and legends of many Polynesian cultures.

"The to'orā's were the spirits that led the canoes to their ultimate homes, therefore they're very important to them," LeLaulu said.

"Whales are much more revered in Polynesia and that's why it's very significant that the Polynesian leaders themselves adopted this declaration."

He said the declaration for legal personhood will preserve these stories by working towards internationally recognized conservation for whales across the Pacific.

"By giving them personhood, it means that now they have rights and now people can sue on their behalf in the courts of law, and they can be much more closely protected.

"Before they didn't have any rights, they were just 'bounty of the ocean' and open for anyone to do anything with them."

The He Whakaputanga Moana declaration has also gained significant interest from other countries who are interested in supporting the protection of whales on a global scale.

A big signing event of the declaration is expected to be held at the inaugural gathering of traditional leaders in Hawaii in June this year.

Both Tou Ariki and Kiingi Tuheitia have confirmed they will be attending.

They said they are looking forward to connecting with Pasifika leaders to ensure whale songs will continue to resonate through Te Moana Nui O Kiva for generations to come.