By Tim Blagg
The other day, poachers used a poison arrow to kill Satao, one of Kenya’s most adored elephants.
They then hacked off his 61/ 2-foot-long tusks and carried them off to sell for their ivory, reaping a large reward for their crime.
They had a market for that ivory, despite the fact that it is illegal in most parts of the world to sell — or even possess — natural ivory.
It’s been that way for years, but the illegal trade goes on.
In this country, ivory from elephants, walruses or whales has been banned since 1989.
But there are still unprincipled collectors or practitioners of some traditional forms of medicine who will pay high prices for it.
So Washington decided to tighten the laws, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote stricter rules concerning the transportation of any items containing elephant ivory.
And then U.S. customs agents, armed with those rules, refused clearance for seven ivory-tipped violin bows owned by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra because the items lacked proper permits. The violinists couldn’t prove that the makers of those hand-crafted antique bows had the necessary papers, and wound up playing with borrowed bows and paying a $525 fine.
Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments for the National Music Museum, said the order apparently is being applied to items ranging from vintage pianos with 88 ivory keys to smaller ornamental uses such as ivory-tipped violin bows and nuts and pegs on C.F. Martin guitars. She said the directive puts the burden of proof of how the ivory was obtained on the instrument owner instead of on federal agents.
“They don’t have to prove anything,” Sheets said. “All they have to say is, ‘You don’t have the right documentation,’ and your object is gone.”
Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy for the League of American Orchestras, said members have worries because the permitting system is confusing and it limits the airports musicians can fly through.
Noonan said many professional and student musicians play with bows that contain a small quantity of African elephant ivory, which were legally crafted and legally obtained. But she said it’s unlikely that they would have asked for particular documentation when they purchased the bows.
“Musicians are buying their instruments for the sound and for the musical attributes, not for the ivory content,” she said. “So they would need to do some fairly substantial detective work to determine the exact details of what’s been included in their instruments.”
The situation is a classic case of unintended consequences.
The problem is serious. In 1979, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million, but a decade later, only 600,000 could be counted. After illegal kills peaked in the 1980s — making millions for Hong Kong brokers — an international ban on ivory trade cut back substantially on poaching.
But then disagreements about the need for legitimate sales — which in some African nations are used to fund conservation — broke the ban, and the world has seen an upsurge in ivory sales, 70 percent of which are made to China.
The U.S. can certainly do its part in curbing the sale of ivory, and in turn the hunting of these magnificent animals — but some modicum of common sense is needed.
Hounding professional violinists who play antique instruments is probably not the answer.