Indigenous leaders grant whales personhood

Indigenous leaders from New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Cook Islands have signed a groundbreaking treaty, granting legal personhood to whales. Spearheaded by Māori conservationist Mere Takoko and the Hinemoana Halo Ocean Initiative, the treaty aims to secure rights for whales, including freedom of movement, natural behavior, cultural expression including language and a healthy environment. Takoko emphasizes the cultural significance of whales as sacred ancestors to indigenous Polynesians, warning that without them, the marine ecosystem would collapse.


Whales are especially vulnerable to climate change and other threats like ship strikes, entanglement in fisheries, and noise pollution, because they are migratory. They also remove unwanted carbon from the atmosphere over the course of their lives and store it in their bodies. This adds to the environmental value of whales, but it also gives them an economic one with their worth in carbon sequestration estimated at $2 million each.

Despite debates over the valuation of whale carbon and concerns about monetization, granting legal personhood to whales is seen as a vital step in their conservation. The ethical imperative of recognizing the intrinsic value and rights of non-human lives, echoes a global trend of conferring personhood on natural entities. Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador have granted personhood to bees, leatherback turtles, and nature itself, respectively. New Zealand and Bangladesh have extended personhood to rivers to safeguard their ecosystems.

Personhood is about visibility and accountability, and making whales legally visible can prevent their neglect. By granting whales personhood, this treaty therefore seeks to elevate their status, protect their habitats, and ensure their survival amidst mounting environmental challenges. Looking at nature this way and legally recognizing it as part of our society can hopefully encourage a paradigm shift, fostering a deeper understanding of our shared responsibility towards the preservation of our planet‘s diverse ecosystems.