ivory

Ask anyone about their thoughts on the poaching of endangered species, deforestation, over-sourcing from natural resources, and other such human endeavors and they will most likely agree that something must be done to limit the devastating ecological effects that these practices have on our world. One such practice that has gotten a lot of press in the past year has been the poaching of elephant ivory for sale in markets around the world. The World Wildlife Foundation makes the following concise statement about the history of this problem:

“In the early 1970s, demand for ivory soared and the amount of ivory leaving Africa rose to levels not seen since the start of the century. Most of the ivory leaving Africa was taken illegally and over 80% of all the raw ivory traded came from poached elephants. This illegal trade was largely responsible for reducing the African elephant population from 3-5 million to current levels. In the 1980s, for example, an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed per year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions. The poaching was generally well-organized and difficult to control because of the availability of automatic weapons.”

Their webite goes on to describe CITIES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and their 1989 decision to ban international ivory trade. Since this ban was instated, African elephant populations have begun to recover, but a 2011 study estimated that 7.4 percent of all African elephants may have been killed by poachers that year alone. More drastic measures to protect these animals need to be taken.

In January 2014, China followed in the footsteps of the United States by ceremoniously crushing several tons of confiscated ivory. Both countries want their stance on illegal trade known worldwide. A month later, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife Service announced a ban on the trade in elephant ivory within the United States by prohibiting all imports, exports, and resales. Seems like a good idea, right? Crack down on all of those criminals and violinists. Good thing grandma’s Steinway isn’t up for sale.

Am I being unfair? No one has “tickled the ivories” of a new Steinway since the early 1970s when they began manufacturing pianos with high-quality plastic keys, but if you owned one of these vintage instruments you now own it for life — or face criminal charges. These regulations make the import, export, and interstate sale of almost any object with African elephant ivory virtually impossible, and anyone who owns any antique elephant ivory will be unable to ship or sell it without unimpeachable documentation proving it is at least 100 years old, has not been repaired with elephant ivory since 1973, AND arrived in the United States through one of the 13 approved ports of entry.

But let’s be honest, no one is planning to ship a Steinway anytime soon. However, certain musical instruments — instruments crucial to the careers of many musicians — contain ivory and are may face confiscation when traveling. Those of us who were born in the 1980s and own bows from the great makers of the 19th and early 20th centuries will also have a problem applying for an instrument passport which requires proof of purchase prior to 1973. If you can somehow obtain documents supporting your claim to your property, the passport is pricey and must be renewed every 3 years*.

Who is charged with enforcing these new rules? Why, the TSA of course (acting on behalf of the Department of Fish and Wildlife)! I have been playing violin for over 20 years, and I have a hard time determining whether the tip of a bow is made of ivory, bone, or some synthetic white substance. Just as you can prove a real pearl from a fake, ivory can be scratched to determine its authenticity, but it also decreases its value. No offense to the hardworking officers who strive to keep our flights safe, but I don’t trust you for a minute when it comes to “eyeballing” my livelihood to determine what materials they are made of and if they must be confiscated.

You might be thinking that perhaps this law might be like the “law” against bringing nail clippers onboard or removing your shoes while going through the x-ray scanner — “laws” that seem to lose their lustre when there is, say, an especially long line to go through airport security. “When the term ‘import’ is used on this ban, it doesn’t just mean commercial activity,” says Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. “It means bringing instruments into the country, even just for personal use, and even if you’re simply returning from work internationally with that instrument.” The Budapest Festival Orchestra had to pay a fine of $525 to get back seven bows that were seized at JFK International Airport last month for containing elephant ivory despite having a signed statement from the Hungarian government clearing them for customs. Critically acclaimed jazz bassist Christian McBride was travelling to Saskatoon, Canada last month only to discover that the TSA had confiscated his bass bow under suspicion that it contained ivory. Most shockingly, his experience shed light on the the little-known fact that even items that APPEAR to be made of ivory are liable to be seized without warning and without notice to the passenger unless they lodge an official complaint.

In case you are unfamiliar with the items, violin bows can range in price from a couple hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars depending on the maker and quality of the bow. The most expensive bow I have ever tried was in the ballpark of about $20k, but some professionals own bows worth much more than that, and a professional violinist usually carrys more than one bow with them on tour.

The criminalization of these types of possessions does not just affect string players. Bassoons are often made with ivory components. The traditional ivory ring at the end of the bell serves not only a decorative purpose, but it also protects the wood from cracking. Sometimes, this ring can be replaced, but other times it must be ground off in order to comply with the new laws. Not to mention those poor bassoonists playing on some antique French bassoons made entirely of Rosewood, another material that makes an appearance on the banned list.

Some guitars and mandolins have ivory inlays, and as one 17-year old from Scotland can tell you, even bagpipes aren’t in the clear.

As is often the case, one sweeping law is not the answer to a decades-old problem. The government keeps coming out with statements about how the law is not intended to threaten the livelihood of performing artists, but no good solution has been presented. Suffice to say, I left my good bow at home this summer and opted to take a decidedly less expensive carbon fiber replacement.

*Someone please explain to me how my bow, made of wood, metal, horsehair, and ivory will remain functional and yet change enough in 3 years’ time to need a new passport when a child’s passport — which could’ve been issued on their first birthday — is valid for up to 5 years.

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