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  • In traditional Māori society, a range of methods for pest control were developed such as reciting karakia, the strategic use of fire and smoke, soil preparation and maintenance. One prominent example of traditional Māori pest management is the case of the anuhe or hīhue (convolvulus hawk moth caterpillar) where local and seasonal elimination was a continual goal and a number of methods were needed for removal.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato


    Anuhe is the caterpillar of the convolvulus hawk moth (Agrius convolvuli). Anuhe feed on kūmara plants including the leaves. The caterpillars can be brown or green and have distinct striped patterns.

    Green caterpillar, lomuland, CC BY-NC 4.0; brown caterpillar, Robert Briggs, CC BY-SA 4.0; moth, Mathias Michael, CC BY-NC 4.0. All sourced from iNaturalistNZ.

    Kūmara were brought to Aotearoa by Polynesian ancestors of Māori and quickly became a vital food source and staple carbohydrate. Kūmara genealogically trace back to the atua Rongo-marae-roa and play an important role in ceremonies and whakataukī. Kūmara are considered a taonga to Māori. Māori used various techniques for controlling anuhe, including manual extraction, ritual chants to protect crops from any harm, and the use of native birds to keep pest numbers down. Māori saw value in all species – including pests – and were resourceful in viewing the anuhe pest as an environmental indicator of a good crop.

    These strategies were once effective in managing pests. However, the landscape of Aotearoa has significantly changed with the introduction of exotic pests like varroa. Many exotic pests (for example, possums) threaten various taonga species like kiwi, making this a concern for Māori. Māori have been aware of these issues including loss of native species since the 1860s. In the early 1990s, one pan-tribal Treaty of Waitangi Claim, that is now commonly known as Wai 262 was lodged to the Waitangi Tribunal. This claim formalised a range of Māori concerns that had built up over the years. These concerns included issues such as the level of control and protection of indigenous flora and fauna and their resources, along with the linked knowledge and intellectual property rights.

    Rights: Geoff McKay, CC BY 2.0


    Te Rongo-Marae-Roa, atua of kūmara, is represented in this pou whenua.

    RNA interference and pest management

    RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural process that occurs in cells where small RNA molecules ‘silence’ or decrease the activity of specific genes by preventing them from making proteins.

    RNAi is also a novel biotechnology tool proposed for use on the invasive varroa mite. Other applications of this tool include reducing the populations of various pest species. This has the potential to reverse biological decline, which can ultimately be a benefit for taonga species.

    Te ao Māori concepts

    Te ao Māori concepts in the context of using novel tools for pest management:

    • Whakapapa is embodied in the DNA of an organism and refers to our connection with the environment and the importance of maintaining that relationship, which therefore must be protected.
    • Mana – recognised authority or power. All living things possess this, and it is closely linked to the concept of tapu, which acknowledges the prestigious role species have in their ecosystems that must be maintained.
    • Mauri is the foundation upon which life relies and involves maintaining the active living component and integrity of taonga species. This includes both animate and inanimate objects such as their populations, ecosystems and habitats.
    • Kaitiakitanga refers to the implicit duty to care for natural resources and taonga species where Māori undertake the role of kaitiaki to protect and preserve species forming a reciprocal relationship, which is not restricted to tending to the wellbeing of the organism itself.
    • Tikanga – Māori customs and protocols. It is important for the correct Māori customs to be followed if novel tools are used for pest control in Aotearoa New Zealand.
    • Rangatiratanga – self-determination. If novel tools are used, Māori must retain their kaitiaki role over taonga species, including any sort of genetic material and also during the decision-making processes. In te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Māori text), rangatiratanga was emphasised by various iwi over their taonga and lands, including the ngahere (forests).

    This is one way to think about how these concepts relate to applications of RNAi for pest control. The concepts can be used in many other ways and provide an opportunity to think about our environment differently.

    Rights: qimono

    Pieces in the gene technology puzzle

    There are multiple components in play regarding the use of genetic technologies. Cultural and societal considerations sit alongside scientific and technological considerations.

    Image sourced from Pixabay.

    Māori perceptions of novel biotechnologies

    New Zealand’s Biological Heritage – Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho National Science Challenge conducted research that aimed to take an opinion snapshot of Māori perceptions of novel biotechnologies for pest control use. There is a perception that Māori are more likely to hold strong oppositional views to novel biotechnologies, but the researchers found this was not the case for all Māori participants in the study. Researchers found there was a strong consensus among Māori participants who were against doing nothing to solve the pest problem in New Zealand and also against using non-specific pest control methods such as poisons. Participants also emphasised the importance of having kaitiaki and Māori leaders at the decision-making level and the importance of tikanga in the process of everyone reaching an agreement for any use of novel tools for pest control. This indicated that there is a possibility for Māori to be open to the idea of using novel tools for pest control if the correct processes are carried out that thoroughly incorporates tikanga and rangatiratanga.

    What surfaced from our research is the importance of a tikanga standpoint on this very complex conversation – signalling a shift from ‘social licence to operate’ to rangatiratanga.

    Symon Palmer, Co-Lead of the Novel Tools and Strategies – Invertebrates team, BioHeritage National Science Challenge

    Questions for discussion

    • What is one of the key concepts for Māori when considering new biotechnologies?
    • If RNAi is used to control varroa, what are some implications for Māori?
    • Are there concepts that align strongly with your own thinking?
    • How do these concepts align with other conservation issues?

    Related content

    Researchers have created a spray that induces RNA interference to slow the spread of myrtle rust.

    Novel tools that involve genetic technologies are often socio-scientific issues. This context for learning curates Hub resources on RNAi and provides pedagogical suggestions.

    For explanations of concepts and relevant vocabulary, see RNA interference – key terms.

    In the 2020 Connected article Whakaotirangi and her kete of kūmara, learn how Tainui ancestor Whakaotirangi first brought kūmara and other plants to Aotearoa and the techniques she used to plant, grow and store them.

    Tupuānuku – land and soil looks at the whakapapa and mauri of oneone and the value of soils to Aotearoa.

    Learn more about the concept of kaitiakitanga with the article Understanding kaitiakitanga and the recorded webinar Kaitiakitanga with Tame Malcolm.

    Tame also features in the PLD webinar Tame Malcolm – indigenous pest management.

    For a closer look at when, why and how pests were introduced to Aotearoa, check out this timeline.

    The article Mātauranga Māori and science takes a closer look at the two knowledge systems.

    Activity idea

    In RNAi – making science-informed responses, ākonga use a variety of resources to consider personal, societal and science perspectives and make a science-informed response to the use of RNAi as a means of pest control.

    Useful links

    New Zealand’s Biological Heritage – Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho is interested in novel tools and technologies to protect our natural, urban and productive environments.

    Visit the Wai262 website for further information and read the original claim document.


    Benton, R., Frame, A., & Meredith, P. (2013). Te Mātāpunenga: A compendium of references to the concepts and institutions of Māori customary law.

    Hudson, M., Thompson, A., Wilcox, P., Mika, J., Battershill, C., Stott, M., Brooks, R., & Warbrick, L. (2021). Te nohonga kaitiaki: Guidelines for genomic research on taonga species. Te Kotahi Research Institute.

    Mercier, O., King-Hunt, A., & Lester, P. (2019). Novel biotechnologies for eradicating wasps: Seeking Māori studies students’ perspectives with Q method. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 14(1), 136-156.

    Mercier, O., Palmer, S., & King-Hunt, A. (2022). Hōhā riha: Pest insect control in Māori tradition. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 131(3), 261-288.

    Palmer, S., Dearden, P., Mercier, O., King-Hunt, A., & Lester, P. (2021). Gene drive and RNAi technologies: A bio-cultural review of next-generation tools for pest wasp management in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 52(5), 508-525.

    Palmer, S., & Mercier, O. R. (2021). Biotechnologies in pest wasp control: Taking the sting out of pest management for Māori businesses? New Genetics and Society, 40(2), 155-177.

    Palmer, S., Mercier, O. & King-Hunt, A. (2020). Towards rangatiratanga in pest management? Māori perspectives and frameworks on novel biotechnologies in conservation. Pacific Conservation Biology, 27(4), 391-401.

    Roskruge, N., & Semese, S., (2020). Ngā Pōrearea me ngā Matemate o ngā Māra Kūmara: Pests and Diseases of Kūmara (Sweetpotato) Crops. Palmerston North, NZ: Tāhuri Whenua Incorporated.


    This article was written by Tere Porter-Rawiri (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki, Ngāti Mutunga).

    Rights: New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

    New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

    The BioHeritage Challenge is one of 11 National Science Challenges funded by MBIE.

      Published 12 September 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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