The rugged west coast of New Zealand is home to many secrets. Rivers that run flush with gold, beaches that conceal ambergris, and waterways dotted with boulders of the sacred Māori stone, pounamu.
Imbued with spiritual significance to New Zealand’s Indigenous tribes, pounamu – otherwise known as greenstone or New Zealand jade – is highly prized. For centuries Māori have fashioned it into jewellery, tools and even weapons, which could denote status or be used as ceremonial objects or symbols of peace agreements.
Pounamu is only found in the South Island, mostly on the rugged West Coast, the country’s least populated region.
Here, the Ngāi Tahu tribe are guardians of the rock, but as the value of the stone increases and gains mainstream popularity as sought-after jewellery, tribal members are growing increasingly concerned about a thriving black market.
“We’re seeing people trying to sell [illegal] stones a lot more regularly, especially post-Covid, it’s becoming much more prevalent,” says Lisa Tumahai, kaiwhakahaere (spokesperson) for Ngāi Tahu.
Depending on the quality, pounamu can fetch between NZ$10-100 a pound (450 grams).
By law, found in its natural state on tribal land, it belongs to the tribe, though there are some exceptions. Stones found on gold mining operations attract a “finder’s fee” while stones small enough to carry by hand off public beaches are free for the taking.
But over the years, there have been multiple incidents of large-scale smuggling operations, in which pounamu has been looted in huge quantities from isolated West Coast beaches and rivers.
The inaccessibility of much of the back-country makes the stone a prime target for opportunists.
In 2009 a helicopter pilot and his son were jailed for two years each and fined NZ$300,000 for stealing the stone from remote Westland regions using their helicopters. The crown successfully argued the crime caused “considerable spiritual offence as well as economic loss”.
In handing down his sentence, the judge, Gary MacAskill, said the men’s looting of at least NZ$680,000 worth of pounamu had split the Westland community in two as some supported the pair while others condemned them.
“It’s apparent that your actions have caused irreparable damage,” he said. “It is clear that your offending has [had] adverse economic and cultural consequences.”
In another 2008 case a pilot was convicted of stealing 20 tonnes of the precious greenstone, with prosecutors saying it would have taken him 100 helicopter trips to transport it. Ten tonnes of the stone were found hidden among flax bushes on his property.
Now, tribal members say the looting is happening on a smaller but no less damaging scale: glistening boulders are being hawked on social media and live auction websites, methods which make the perpetrators hard to trace and convict.
“People are becoming bolder, they’re actively out there selling quantities that require investigation because there’s no way that quantity has come about legally,” says Tumahai.
“I think it’s cranked up after Covid because people are looking at different ways to bring in revenue. Anecdotally we have been told people are using raw pounamu in exchange for [methamphetamine] and last year the police did some drug raids and found raw pounamu.”
Ngāi Tahu tribal members all over New Zealand monitor social media sites as well as Trade Me, the country’s largest auction site, and report any suspicious sales of the stone to the Ngāi Tahu pounamu management team.
In a statement, Trade Me said in the last 12 months it had “raised concerns about one pounamu listing” on its site.
“You’d be a mug to do anything dodgy on Trade Me,” said James Ryan, the company’s policy and compliance manager. “You leave deep electronic footprints on our site which can be traced.”
If the tribe has suspicions, it will first contact the seller to start a dialogue about where and how the pounamu was sourced.
But if the seller proves unwilling to cooperate, Ngāi Tahu are taking cases to police, lodging three in December alone.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it was aware of potential issues of theft of pounamu and has encouraged Ngāi Tahu to report incidences of theft to the police as they come across them.
“Māori Pacific and Ethnic Services and CIB [Criminal Investigation Branch] from Canterbury will have a meeting with Ngāi Tahu to look at the information at hand and to scope a way forward in terms of investigation and prevention,” a Canterbury police spokesperson said.
The tribe also has ongoing concerns that pounamu stones – often uncovered during alluvial gold mining and dredging – are not being declared, despite the arrangement that Ngāi Tahu will pay miners a “finder’s fee” when significant stones are found.
And as the popularity of pounamu pendants grows inside New Zealand and overseas, tribal members worry the sanctity of their precious stone will be increasingly corrupted.
“In terms of its spiritual value, I doubt there is anybody out there who would like to purchase a finished taonga (treasure) that has been made from illegally sourced pounamu,” says Tumahai.
“We want to see our stones returned.”