SYDNEY – Australian quarantine officials have acknowledged that they reacted a bit too hastily when they destroyed a rare, centuries-old collection of plants from France due to paperwork problems.
The Museum of Natural History in Paris sent the flowering plant specimens to a research center in Australia's Queensland state. When the plants arrived in Australia in January, officials determined that the accompanying paperwork failed to comply with the country's notoriously strict quarantine rules. Quarantine authorities then tried to get proper documentation from the Queensland Herbarium, but before they could, biosecurity officers destroyed the plants, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said in a statement Tuesday.
Michelle Waycott, who heads the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the specimens dated back to the mid-1800s and were irreplaceable.
Australia has some of the world's toughest quarantine regulations in a bid to keep pests and diseases from infiltrating its isolated borders and destroying the country's unique wildlife. The strict quarantine policies captured global attention in 2015, when Johnny Depp and his then-wife, Amber Heard, were accused of illegally bringing their pet Yorkshire Terriers into Australia, where Depp was working on a movie.
According to the agriculture department, the plants arrived in early January with a declared value of 2 Australian dollars ($1.50) and no indication of their significance. The attached documents failed to include information such as what the specimens were and whether they were preserved, so the department held onto the package while officials worked to get those details. The Queensland Herbarium then called the department saying it would provide the additional documentation, but didn't do so until March 3.
Those documents were still deemed insufficient, so the department said it requested more information. By the end of March, no further documents had arrived and the plants were thus destroyed, the department said.
The agriculture department said it hung onto the plant specimens for 46 days longer than what is normally required while officials worked to sort out the documentation. But the agency conceded that destroying the plants was "premature," given that officials and the herbarium were still working to sort out the issue.
Officials at the Queensland Herbarium declined to comment.
The department said it had conducted a review and would take steps to avoid such an incident from happening again.