Ivory Ban Good for Elephants, a Headache for Musicians

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New regulations aimed at protecting Africa's endangered elephants are sending shock waves through parts of the music world. New regulations aimed at protecting Africa's endangered elephants are impacting violinists. (Shutterstock/Jonathan Pledger)

New Federal rules aimed at protecting Africa's endangered elephants are sending shock waves through parts of the music world.

Under new regulations that began to take effect in February, musical instruments that have even the smallest amount of ivory are banned from entering the U.S. unless it can be proved that they were purchased before 1976. That includes any violin bows with a small piece of ivory at the tip, and also some bassoon bells and piano keys.

“In the string world, it’s the hottest story around,” Yung Chin, a bowmaker who lives in New York, tells Naomi Lewin in this podcast. “The suddenness of the ruling that came out on February 25 has really caused a problem.”

The ruling came in response to a dramatic increase in elephant poaching in Africa. Some 30,000 elephants per year, over the last several years, have been slaughtered to supply the global demand for ivory, said Craig Hoover, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) wildlife trade and conservation branch. He admits that the demand "is not to put small pieces of ivory at the tips of violin bows but for whole tusks and for large carvings and other products."

But, Hoover added, "We are limited by the laws that Congress gives us. It becomes very difficult to say, 'We are going to cover this commodity but not this commodity when you’re trying to protect a species.'"

Ivory is used to protect the head of violin bows and support the plug that holds the hair into the stick (right). After an international treaty was enacted in the 1970s, most of the string trade switched from elephant ivory to that made from the tusks of long-extinct mammoths. For musicians who can prove any ivory in their instrument was legally acquired before 1976, it’s possible to obtain a travel permit through the USFWS, Hoover said. That process takes 30 to 45 days and costs $75.

Still, there is concern among musicians who are scheduled to perform abroad, and then re-enter the U.S. Zachary Lewis, the classical music and dance critic of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, spoke with several members of the Cleveland Orchestra who fear that their instruments will be confiscated when the group travels to Europe in September. "I’ve talked to a couple violinists, a bassoonist, and they’re concerned about it,” he said.

Hoover says that the USFWS is currently gathering feedback from musicians' trade groups, including the American Federation of Musicians and the League of American Orchestras. Potential amendments to the rules could start to take shape this summer.

Meanwhile, Chin and his fellow bow-makers are developing synthetic tips that can be exchanged for ivory in order to facilitate travel. But the complications may not end there. “This material is an ivory imitation – totally a synthetic,” he said. “But this thing looks very close to ivory. I would be nervous. Hopefully we will work on this so people won’t have the fear and trepidation of traveling around with their materials.”

Chin, Lewis and Hoover have a lot more to say about the complications around this law in the full podcast above. Take a listen and please share your thoughts in the comments box below: How do you feel about the new regulations concerning ivory?


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Comments [8]

Nate from USA

How is long-extinct mammoth ivory better a great improvement, and how is it even possible? It seems there would be a very limited supply.

Cutting the market value of ivory products is worthwhile. What an enormous shame that poaching has not been seriously curtailed.

Apr. 27 2014 05:08 PM
Stephen Gyetko

Oh, come on! "Since 1976" is a large enough 'window' to drive a truck through! You can't tell me that Ivory is indispensable. I just can't believe it. I mean, we get along fine without whale oil and whalebone corset stays, haven't we? Just as we will get along fine without Ivory in musical instruments. Grow the hell up, willya?

Apr. 26 2014 07:40 AM
Gary Moody

The issue of going forward has been settled - illegal ivory is not used to manufacture musical instruments. The question is whether we should retro-fit older instruments that were made in a time when ivory was commonly used and perfectly legal. While some would argue that musicians should purchase another instrument for international travel, an additional bassoon is expensive and younger or amateur players with such instruments will be unable to do so.

Are we in favor of "vandalizing" pre-ban ivory instruments to make a statement about the illegal acts of poachers today? Would we favor covering Michelangelo's David if the moral standard changed?

Apr. 25 2014 09:35 PM

There is no reason why this should be a subject for discussion.
An elephant's life is always worth more than any musical instrument. To me it seems perfectly obvious that an animal should not lose its life so that the human can hear a special sound produced by ivory.
Of course, we should not expect that the elephant population will not continue to be diminished due to slaughter because that is the way of the human.
The human exists mainly to murder, torture and destroy. Along the way if he does anything else to occupy his time, that's gravy.

Apr. 25 2014 03:52 PM
Ozgur Erdogan from Istanbul

Graphene based materials can be used instead of ivory for instrument pieces.
An experiment shows that frequency response of graphene is better than all materials in headphones.

Apr. 25 2014 09:08 AM
John from NY

I believe:
- there is something unique to ivory, perhaps some resonant quality, that makes it preferable
- they are trying to cut the demand out of the supply chain so poachers can't make money which is .. one way to approach the problem. but at least they are trying. so that's good.
- traveling musicians need not worry because airport security is far more concerned with finding explosive chemicals

I doubt any begrudged employee is going to try and pry a beloved instrument away from its caring owner. I highly doubt they'll even know that ivory is used in instruments or that there was a ban on it.
If worried, as suggested before, get a bow to travel with. Play with it, learn to love it and deal with it.

Apr. 25 2014 04:00 AM
Bernie from UWS

Yes, I wonder whether even the most perceptive audience member can tell if a bow has an ivory tip or a synthetic one. Maybe it has to do with the musician feeling confident that their equipment will work properly...but I'm not so sure. Ms. Levin didn't really ask this question and it hangs out there too me.

Apr. 24 2014 08:26 PM
Eleanor Forman

People who were not sensitive to the plight of elephants when they PURCHASED their bows are having their lack of concern come back to bite them! The idea that music can not be made properly without elephant ivory is ridiculous. There is mammoth ivory, and synthetic ivory—so if you have a bow with elephant ivory, get another for traveling, or get the ivory replaced! Bassoon bells don't need to be made of ivory, and certainly you can tickle the ivories of pianos with keys made from wood or plastic.

Apr. 24 2014 08:00 PM

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