Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ivory in the Balance

A recent federal administrative action that has affected string players and string instrument collectors is the “Ivory Ban,” an effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen the Endangered Species Act by restricting and regulating border crossings of items containing ivory. The ultimate purpose of this effort, enacted in February and “soft-pedalled” in May, is to increase the crackdown on poaching of elephants in Africa and Asia. That, in and of itself is a righteous goal, but...

I don't usually have a political bee in my bonnet, and this is perhaps an unusual forum for such a topic, but already this edict has proven troublesome to touring orchestras and international artists entering the US. Already some unsuspecting string players have had bows confiscated (and, I assume, destroyed) by TSA agents because of a nickle-sized piece of ivory in the tips of their bows. This has been the preferred material for protecting the end of the bow stick for centuries, although more recent bow makers have switched to different materials since 1976. Occasionally there may also be ivory in the frog of the bow, or in the pegs of the instrument. Only ivory installed before February 26, 1976 is permitted to enter, and then only with valid CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) documentation. (February 26, 1976 is the date on which African elephants were placed on the endangered species list).

The CITES documentation is predictably complicated at seven pages long. The fact is that the majority of people can't tell real ivory from synthetic, let alone legal ivory from illegal. Hundreds of bows (which hardly ever have a date stamped on them) change owners daily, mostly without any papers, and if you ask any party involved in those exchanges, they would more than likely be unaware of the ivory content. You try out a bow, and if it feels right and does the things you want it to do, (and you can afford it), you buy it, whether it has papers or not. High-end bows ($30-50,000) are affected by this because replacing their ivory invalidates their authenticity and endangers their integrity. To be sure, we are not talking about factory-made equipment that comes with an owner's manual and a bar code.

String players are just one demographic who are affected by this ban. While it is doubtful they would show up at the gate, countless old pianos are out there with ivory keys-- including one in the White House, I have heard. Sax and trumpet keys may have ivory caps. Cue balls for billiard sets, pistol handles, to say nothing of primitive art and jewelry. I do truly care about the plight of the elephants. It's just that I am skeptical that criminalizing musicians (and others) and placing their equipment at the mercy and whim of some airport employee is going to do anything to stop even one poacher from acting-- or bring dead elephants back to life.

I have included a list of links for further information, as the matter is so complicated that I can only scratch the surface of what is going on with this issue here. 

The website offers some general tips for travelling with instruments here .

This League of American Orchestras posting offers some more specific tips and links to the numerous websites that hone in on how to at least try to stay within the law.

President Obama's National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking (a pdf) can be found here.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service gives us here an overview of what can and cannot be done with ivory.

Here is the USFWS's guide to travelling internationally with a musical instrument, expanding its scope to endangered plant life such as pernambuco wood, from which the finest bows tend to be made. Good luck.

Here is an article from Time with links about the "soft-pedalling" of the original act.

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