Karl Niklas, a professor of plant science at Cornell University, called the losses “obscene.” He said thousands of specimens are routinely swapped every day without a hitch and that cases of errant destruction are rare.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s difficult to hear about.”
The specimens were sent in December by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, destined for the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane, Australia. They arrived in the country in early January with a declared value on the package of $2, the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said in an emailed statement.
“There had been no prior notification of the package’s arrival or its significance,” the statement said.
The department reviewed the package’s documentation and determined the specimens did not comply with import and biosecurity rules, which are meant to keep out pests and diseases.
The department said it asked for more information but did not get a response within the required 30 days. It was later discovered that the herbarium initially sent a response to an incorrect email address. Additional documentation arrived on March 3, but it was deemed insufficient and the department again requested more information.
Absent further documentation, goods being held that have a declared low value are routinely destroyed, the statement said, adding that by the time the specimens were incinerated, at the end of March, they had been held for 76 days — 46 days longer than required.
The department said it was a “deeply regrettable occurrence” and conceded that “unintentionally proceeding with destruction of the specimens was premature while communication between the department and the intended recipient was ongoing.”
It said it was reviewing what happened, had implemented steps to prevent a future occurrence and met on Monday with herbarium collections managers. Herbarium officials could not be reached to comment.
All of that was little solace to Michel Guiraud, the director of collections at the National Museum of Natural History, who said the scientific losses were significant.
The shipment included “type specimens,” which are rare samples highly sought by botanists who use them as a baseline to compare other plants. Worse, some of the specimens were collected at the end of the 18th century by the French botanist Jacques-Julien Houtou de La Billardière.
“The problem is that we were warned of nothing,” Mr. Guiraud said.
The museum sent specimens from the Lagenophora family, which includes daisies, and was notified that a quarantine document was missing.
“We filled it out and sent it,” Mr. Guiraud said, adding that the paperwork was in order. Two weeks later, the museum learned the specimens had been destroyed.
Mr. Guiraud said he was all the more angry to learn through news accounts that a similar episode occurred with six lichen specimens on loan from New Zealand that were mistakenly destroyed by Australian authorities.
All that was left of the destroyed plants from the Paris museum were digitized images, which are kept for those who want to see a specimen without traveling or requesting a loan.
“It happened,” Mr. Guiraud said of the destruction. “But it is out of the question that it will happen again.”
Biosecurity is a watchword in Australia, which screens about 138 million mail pieces each year to guard against harm to its agricultural industries, valued at $59 billion.
Its stringent enforcement of quarantine rules made headlines last year when the actor Johnny Depp got into a feud with Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s deputy prime minister and minister for agriculture and water resources.
The trouble began when Amber Heard, Mr. Depp’s wife at the time, arrived with their two Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo, and left her private jet without declaring the dogs, who were supposed to be placed in quarantine. Ms. Heard pleaded guilty to providing false information on her passenger card, and prosecutors dropped the more serious charges.
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