VERMILLION, S.D. — Museums and musicians are concerned that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's stricter rules on the transport of items containing elephant ivory are inflicting unintended complications on the music community.
The new strategy for fighting trafficking through enforcement, approved by President Barack Obama in February, puts a near complete ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory.
Musicians and collectors say the rules will limit their ability to travel abroad with antique and vintage instruments they acquired decades ago, and could put them risk of fines and the possible seizure of their instruments.
"We've kind of been caught up in the clampdown that's designed to prevent the extinction of these populations, but we're not really the ones causing the problem," said Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments for the National Music Museum in Vermillion.
The order from agency director Daniel Ashe initially allowed the noncommercial import of worked elephant ivory that was legally acquired and removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, and has not been sold since then. The agency eased the rule slightly in May, keeping the 1976 acquisition date but extending the instrument sale date to February 25, 2014.
Very few people, Sheets said, kept documentation on ivory before 1989, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species classified the African elephant as endangered and banned sales of Ivory.
Sheets, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, said the order applies 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."
Craig Hoover, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Wildlife Trade and Conservation branch, said the policy is a work in progress and the agency is trying to find ways to accommodate musicians' concerns while achieving the larger goal of ensuring that the U.S. is not contributing to elephant poaching and illegal trade in ivory. He said the agency has issued many permits for musical instruments and components since the order was issued.
"A relatively piecemeal approach to regulating ivory has not worked very well," Hoover said. "And so we're trying to close up existing loopholes and have a more comprehensive regulatory system, because we are seeing dramatic increases in poaching and in illegal ivory trade."
Earlier this month, U.S. customs agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport refused clearance for seven ivory-tipped violin bows owned by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra because the items lacked proper permits. The musicians used borrowed bows for their performances, and their own were eventually released and sent back to Hungary after a $525 fine was paid.
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 a great number of professional and student musicians are playing with bows that contain a small quantity of African elephant ivory, which were legally crafted and legally obtained. 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."
Professional musicians often spend their careers buying and upgrading instruments before selling them upon retirement, Noonan added, and the new rules jeopardize such makeshift pension plans.
Hoover acknowledged that documenting the origin of an ivory specimen can be challenging. He said further outreach and education needs to be done to make sure musicians and other groups know how to comply with international trade requirements.
"Certainly we recognize there's a learning curve here, and we're trying to get the impacted industries up to speed in terms of what the requirements are," he said.
Sheets said the prohibition on sales of instruments containing ivory could hamper new purchases for the museum, which grew from a private collection into an attraction boasting more than 15,000 pianos, harpsichords, guitars, horns and other items.