National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking

In February, President Obama released the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. This is primarily aimed the so-called “iconic species,” especially elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.

There is no question that endangered species of animals and plants and their habitats should be protected from extinction. Threatened species of wood and animal products, especially, have historically been widely used in the musical instrument industry. The most common and well-known example is the use of elephant ivory for piano keyboards. Since the 20th century development of high quality synthetic substitutes, the has been no practical reason to continue using genuine ivory for keyboards or, for that matter, nearly any other purpose.

Similarly the case of Central and South American rosewoods (plant species are not addressed in the Strategy). While there is no good synthetic substitute for natural wood, there are more sustainable species that function equally well. In both cases, no reputable manufacturer in the world still uses newly harvested materials from endangered species. It’s not necessary and is morally indefensible.

But humans are not practical. The fact remains that there is no aesthetic substitute for these natural products, so humans still desire them and are willing to pay for them. Thus, the illegal trafficking in these products continues to be a global problem. Governments are absolutely right to do everything in their power to stop this activity.

However, when the desire to Do The Right Thing goes beyond reason, there must be some accommodation. In particular is the question of antiques. With antiques, the animals were harvested and materials used and sold freely and legally. There is no benefit to restricting their trade now, and the impact of this national policy in the US promises to be far-reaching for musicians, collectors of musical instruments, and museums. And its effect can only increase the cost of illegal ivory and therefore the incentive to continue killing elephants.

The fact sheet for the National Strategy states the following:

To begin implementing these new controls, federal Departments and Agencies will immediately undertake administrative actions to:

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of African Elephant Ivory: All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited.
  • Prohibit Commercial Export of Elephant Ivory:  All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act. [This appears to allow export only of antiques.]
  • Significantly Restrict Domestic Resale of Elephant Ivory:  We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document. [OK, antiques are still good to trade domestically.]
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”:  To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act.  The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria. [This gets more difficult, as one rarely has a full history of an antique and all its repairs.]
  • Restore Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants:  We will revoke a previous Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade.
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants:  We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.

These rules are already being enforced and are having dire consequences for legitimate collectors, musicians, and museums. This last week the Budapest Festival Orchestra reported that U.S. Customs officials at JFK Airport had seized seven bows from the orchestra’s string section. The orchestra was traveling from Budapest to Avery Fisher Hall in New York, where it performed  a pair of concerts. It seems the bows were returned after a $525 fine was paid. Apparently the orchestra had documentation attesting that there was no elephant ivory in the bows, but it did not meet specific criteria required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency stated that elephant ivory was identified on the 7 bows by its typical grain pattern. Other orchestras have voiced concern about traveling to the US with the possible threat of having materials confiscated. The difficulty in many cases of providing unequivocal evidence of both date of purchase and, especially, provenance of ivory parts promises to be a thorny issue for some time to come.

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