Bowmakers and Music Industry Groups Begin to Address the Ivory Import Issue

October 2, 2014, 8:53 PM · With new restrictions resulting in bows being held up at customs, or worse, being confiscated, how can one safely travel to and from the United States with a bow that might or might not contain ivory? This was the subject of a panel discussion held at the Violin Society of America (VSA)'s September convention in Indianapolis, which I attended.

"This has had a profound impact for makers of bows, and for players, and it's all happened very quickly," said VSA President Christopher Germain.

Ivory tips

The panel included bowmakers Rodney Mohr, David Samuel and Yun Chin; attorney John Bennett, and League of American Orchestras lobbyist Heather Noonan. They talked about the issue from a number of perspectives, and here is a summary of what they said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Order 210, meant to protect African elephants from poaching by banning the commercial elephant ivory trade, came out in February 2014 and has had people scrambling ever since. Among its many new restrictions was one that prevented travel into the U.S. with instruments containing African elephant ivory that had been purchased since February 26, 1976. It was amended in May 15, 2014, to allow travel with instruments purchased prior to February 25, 2014 that contain African elephant ivory.

But the new restrictions still pose obvious problems for bow makers, dealers and people who own bows. Bows for stringed instruments typically have a small slide at the tip that traditionally is made from mammoth or elephant ivory. The mammoth ivory is currently not banned, but it's hard to tell the difference, especially for a busy customs official. Even with a bow that meets the standards, how does one comply with these new rules?

Attorney Bennett, who has a background as an environmental consultant who has worked on such issues for 20 years, explained why the ban came about in the first place.

"Biodiversity around the world is sinking, and that reality is confronting the music world for the first time," Bennett said. In 1976, African elephants were put on the endangered species list, and recently the population of African elephants has been declining precipitously. The reason the United States has taken such a tough stand on this issue is twofold: first, to show leadership to other countries; and second, because the U.S. has been a leading market for illegal ivory import.

With Order 210 in place, all importation of African elephant ivory for commercial purposes is banned. Imports and exports of musical instruments already containing ivory are allowed, subject to certain rules, including that the ivory must have been taken from the wild before February 26, 1976, that it has not been transferred from one person to another person in the pursuit of financial gain or profit after February 25, 2014; and that the person (or group) qualifies for and has a CITES musical instrument certificate. At this point, interstate and intra-state sales are allowed, as long as the items with ivory were purchased before 1990, but state laws may change. The Fish and Wildlife Service does not seem interested in regulating mammoth ivory, as mammoth species went extinct thousands of years ago.

Basically, most bow makers aren't using African elephant ivory any more and have not been for some time, Bennett said. Instead, they have been using mammoth ivory. Back when they did use African elephant ivory, it was in very small amounts. So some accommodation for this does not seem unreasonable, as bows are not sold primarily for their ivory content. Mohr said that bowmakers also are trying to find alternative materials that can be used for bow tips in place of ivory, going forward.

A number of bowmakers and music industry representatives have been working to figure out how string players and instrument dealers can work within the new restrictions, and also lobbying for amendments and revisions to the restrictions in order to allow musicians to travel with their legally-purchased equipment.

Because of the new restrictions, bowmakers are getting letters from clients asking how they can travel with their bows. "I knew we had to come up with a form or certificate that would accompany bows so that they could safely travel with them," Samuels said. To that end, the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers, with support from the VSA, is trying both to influence legislation and to come up with a document that could accompany bows.

Bennett said that the requirements are exceptionally complicated and overlapping. He is advising a coalition of music industry leaders that includes the American Federation of Musicians, NAMM, the VSA and the American Orchestra League, who are working together for a solution and also to influence any regulations in the future that may involve interstate travel.

"Uniformly, we have experienced expressions of sympathy for the music industry," Bennett said about their efforts to work with Fish and Wildlife officials. "There is reason to be hopeful that we can head off some of the problems before they get started," at the state level, for example.

One problem now is that in order to travel abroad and come back with a bow that contains African elephant ivory, one needs something called a CITES permit. Unfortunately, getting one is time-consuming and confusing, and in the end, it's not a guarantee for safe travel. "A reliable system for compliance has not been built by the U.S.," said Noonan.

Some improvements have been made in this realm, though: While musicians at one time were supposed to get a CITES permit every time they travelled internationally, it is now possible to get a "passport" that is recognized in multiple countries and good for up to three years; though the process for getting that passport remains unclear. (This is described on the League of American Orchestras website.)

It's important to know that only limited ports of entry to the United States are designated for people to travel with CITES permits. That means that musicians traveling with any ivory have to travel through certain ports. And just because certain documents and permits and passports exist, that doesn't necessarily mean that customs officials will know anything about them.

So far, most problems have happened with people who were trying to comply with the law. "These are people who tried to comply with the rules, and as they went through the process, they found they hadn't complied to the letter, or they didn't know something," said bow maker Samuels. Many who didn't try, went through with no problems. Traveling groups encountered problems when some people had permits and some did not, Noonan said.

Other countries are also beginning to form laws about African elephant ivory, and so "every country through which you travel will have a different requirement," if you are trying to comply, Noonan said.

The important take-aways:

As individuals: Find out the laws in the countries you travel to and from so that you are prepared, Bennett said.

Collectively: "It's important that we have a unified response," bowmaker Chin said, so that the message that the music industry puts forth to legislators and regulators is clear and proposes workable solutions. If you wish to contact Congress, the League of American Orchestras has set up this page to help you do so. They have also compiled a lot of useful information on this page.

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October 5, 2014 at 05:15 AM · Sorry. Zero Sympathy. Leave your elephant Ivory bow at home and travel with a different bow. As far as sale and trade of bows containing elephant ivory, this is precisely what the law is meant to prevent. If the bow was made before the ban, too bad. You own it and you can't sell or trade it, period. No one should be profiting from the poaching of a nearly extinct species, and if that means innocent people with good intent are caught in the crossfire (So to speak) then so be it!

October 7, 2014 at 07:26 AM · Why not having the ivory tip replaced by a high quality plastic-one ?

A good bowmaker should be able to do this and cope with (eventual- !) difference in weight of material and preserve the balance and looks of the bow. I don't think this will affect the value of the bow as it becomes more practical for people who have to travel.

October 8, 2014 at 03:39 PM · Don't these bans actually increase the demand for ivory? Sure seems to be happening that way. OR is it simply CHINA that makes the whole problem?

Why not breed elephants for their tusks and flood the market with legitimate ivory? I can't see how you are going to turn of the Chinese demand.

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