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In bid to protect whales, Polynesian indigenous groups give them ‘personhood’

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For many indigenous groups across Polynesia, whales hold an ancient sacredness and spirit that connects all life. Whales – or tohora, as Maori call them – guided their ancestors across the Pacific Ocean. Today, those groups consider themselves to be guardians for the largest animals under the sea.
But as of Wednesday, whales are not simply animals in this region.Indigenous leaders of New Zealand, Tahiti and the Cook Islands signed a historic treaty that recognises whales as legal persons in a move conservationists believe will apply pressure to national govts to offer greater protections for the large mammals. “It’s fitting that the traditional guardians are initiating this,” said Mere Takoko, a Maori conservationist who leads Hinemoana Halo Ocean Initiative, the group that spearheaded the treaty.
Conservationists have good reason to believe they will succeed: In 2017, New Zealand passed a groundbreaking law that granted personhood status to the Whanganui River because of its importance to Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. The treaty, or He Whakaputanga Moana (declaration for the ocean), was signed on Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, in a ceremony attended by Tuheitia Potatau te Wherowhero VII, the Maori king, and 15 paramount chiefs of Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The Maori king said as “the songs of our ancestor” grow fainter, the treaty “is not merely words on paper”. “It’s a Hinemoana Halo, a woven cloak of protection for our taonga, our treasures – the magnificent whales,” he said.
The significance of whales to indigenous groups is twofold. First, they believe they can trace their ancestry directly back to whales, and second, whales were key to developing the Maori system of navigation as people followed whale migrations from island to island. “Without the whale, we would have never found all of these various islands,” Takoko said.
While climate change is considered a significant threat to whales, encounters with large vessels can be fatal. About 10,000 whales are killed every year because of ship strikes.

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