By Lucy Martin
New rules came out last month from the U.S. Department of the Interior designed to help stomp out the illegal trade which led to the slaughter of an estimated 35,000 elephants in 2012 alone. Rhino are killed for their horns too and that’s also part of new crackdowns. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is implementing a major crackdown:
"FWS will impose a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory within the United States, including resale and exports. Commercial elephant ivory in any form, including antiquities, can no longer be imported. Only items that can be proved to be antiques—more than 100 years old—will be allowed to be sold in the United States. The burden of proof will be on the seller."
Saving elephants and rhinos sounds like a laudable goal, doesn’t it? But like so many things, it’s complicated.
According to this article by Tom Mashberg in the New York Times (3/20) the devil is in the details:
"New federal rules aimed at blocking the sale of ivory to protect endangered elephants are causing an uproar among musicians, antiques dealers, gun collectors and thousands of others whose ability to sell, repair or travel with legally acquired ivory objects will soon be prohibited.
"Vince Gill, the guitarist and Grammy Award winner, who owns some 40 classic Martin guitars featuring ivory pegs and bridges, said he is worried now about taking his instruments overseas."
And that’s what makes this a “local” story. Where does old ivory lurk? You’d be surprised. (And good luck distinguishing between elephant ivory and other, still-legal inlay.)
The NYT article explores the many ways this may affect ivory collectors and people who have never intentionally bought ivory, but may own some even so. For years there’s been a rule that allows sale of ivory items at least 100 years old. But that’s about to be kneecapped by a catch-22, as examined in the Time’s artricle, by way of a hypothetical case: trying to sell an antique piano with ivory keys across state lines:
"But the new regulations would prohibit such a sale unless the owner could prove the ivory in the keys had entered the country through one of 13 American ports authorized to sanction ivory goods.
"Given that none of those entry points had such legal power until 1982, the regulations would make it virtually impossible to legitimize the piano’s ivory, the experts said. That predicament would apply to virtually all the antique ivory in the country, barring millions of Americans from ever selling items as innocuous as teacups, dice or fountain pens."
Does the destruction of such heirlooms bring any elephants back, or keep more from being killed?
I don’t think so, but let’s say the answer is yes. That turning ivory into toxic/forbidden contraband in the U.S. destroys the value of anything made with ivory in this country and drives down demand. (Sorry about that, all you musicians and such.) OK, but how does total devaluation of ivory in one country stop (already-illegal) poaching where elephants live, or end demand in other nations?
Is this a feel-good measure that presents the impression much is being done to stomp out the ivory trade while accomplishing little of the sort? I’ve read about other efforts to keep elephants from being killed for their ivory. Such as dying the tusks to make them unusable. Or sawing the tusks off in hopes the animal can escape poacher’s attention. (Poor elephants! Maimed and traumatized and perhaps still killed!)
Judging from the comments on the NYT article, most readers take he position that “we” (mostly meaning other people, evil enough to own blood-soaked ivory) should do anything that will save those intelligent and majestic animals.
But will this really save any? (Not to mention the list of things we should all give up right away to save animals and the planet is very long.)
So, that’s one question: are these rules sensible, will they contribute to the end goal?
Meanwhile, debate may be moot at this point. In which case musicians especially best read up on the rules and be careful about what gets taken on trips. Crossing U.S. borders is about to get risky for anything that possibly contains ivory.