Strict new U.S. regulations on the sale and transport of African ivory are already having an impact in the Northwest.
When the Obama administration issued rules in February that amounted to a near total ban on African ivory, musicians - especially traveling musicians - were among the first to become alarmed because the ban prohibited ivory imports – even if the item being “imported” is a legally-acquired musical instrument with a tiny piece of ivory on it.
Many older instruments contain ivory, both in the construction or for ornamentation.
“The instrument you’ll most commonly find it in is the tip of the bow for stringed instruments,” said Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras, an organization that held its annual conference in Seattle last weekend.
“There are musicians currently playing on instruments that were crafted years ago that contain a small amount of African ivory,” said Noonan.
Musicians, from inside and outside the U.S., were concerned that if they tried to enter the country with instruments containing ivory, they would be seized by customs.
In response to those concerns, the Administration last month adjusted the rules to allow for instruments that contain ivory.
“We have one goal: to shut down the illegal trade in ivory that is fueling the poaching crisis facing African elephants today,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ash. “By implementing a near complete ban on trade in elephant ivory, we are effectively closing loopholes and eliminating the cover provided by legal commercial trade that traffickers have exploited for years. That said, we have listened to the very real concerns expressed by the regulated community and have made common-sense adjustments.”
But there are still strict guidelines that must be followed.
• The African elephant ivory in the instrument must have been legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976, the date of the African elephant's entry on Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the treaty’s most protective category of endangered species)
• The instrument must not have been subsequently sold since February 25, 2014;
• The item is accompanied by a valid CITES musical instrument passport or CITES traveling exhibition certificate.
But even though the regulations have been relaxed a bit for musicians, the League says it's unclear what documentation will be sufficient.
Noonan said the fact is most musicians didn't purchase their instruments because of the ivory - the ivory is just incidental.
"Since musicians aren’t buying for this content, in most cases they don’t have documentation," she said.
And there have already been problems.
Last week, the Budapest Festival Orchestra had seven of its bows seized at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the New York Times reported.
The orchestra reportedly had documentation for the ivory in their bows. Still, the bows were seized and the orchestra had to use borrowed bows.
And that was no small task. Noonan says a bow is an instrument in itself.
“They are not an accessory,” she said. “Subbing another bow is not a simple matter. These are tools of the trade we’re talking about.”
Last weekend, the world champion Simon Fraser University Pipe Band made the trip from British Columbia to Washington state to compete in the Bellingham Highland Games.
Pipe Sgt. Jack Lee said half the pipers in the band have pipes that have ivory ornamentation, so to make the trip, they switched them out and used non-ivory instruments.
“That is a big job and a lot of hassle,” he said. “But the risk of having our bagpipes seized by the U.S. border officials is too great.”
'We're talking about billions of dollars worth of ivory'
The new regulations are also affecting antique dealers and people who own large collections of items made from ivory. Under the new rules, antiques (100 years old) containing African ivory cannot be sold unless owners can document the origin of the ivory.
“We are talking about billions of dollars worth of ivory,” said George Hunter of Hunter’s Antiques in Seattle.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said it is extremely difficult to differentiate legally acquired ivory from ivory derived from elephant poaching.
And FWS said criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have shown clearly that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade.
“By significantly restricting ivory trade in the United States, it will be more difficult to launder illegal ivory into the market and thus reduce the threat of poaching to imperiled elephant populations,” Fish & Wildlife said.
“Not a single elephant will be saved by these regulations,” Hunter said. “If it saved anything I wouldn’t be half as skeptical."
Hunter said dealers have been advised to remove the ivory from items.
“They are telling us they want us to gouge it out to make it legal, or just hang onto it,” he said.
“What they’re saying is, to most dealers, sacrilegious - tearing apart old pieces to make it legal.”
Hunter said he has customers who have large collections that they can’t sell.
“It’s just complicating our wealth and our grandparents’ wealth,” he said. “I have lots of customers going into retirement centers and they’re finding their things are worthless.”
'The bigger thing is to stop the bleed in ivory'
UW professor Sam Wasser is an expert on endangered animal scat. He can pinpoint where seized, illegal ivory came from by matching the DNA to a dung sample.
Wasser said he has been getting a lot of phone calls from people who need to document their ivory, but he said he has been turning them away.
“People have been writing to me and I’m saying ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you,’” he said. “It’s really too bad, but is that so bad compared to keeping these markets open, resulting in 50,000 elephants being killed a year?”
Wasser said he is traveling to Malaysia this week to sample 10 tons of seized ivory.
“I’m seeing so much ivory coming into our lab it just floors me, I can’t even believe that it’s coming,” he said.
Wasser says the goal of his program is to analyze all major ivory seizures in the world to find major poaching hot spots, which would help target anti-poaching efforts.
“We are the only lab in the world that is able to find the origin of these seizures,” he said.
Wasser said by identifying the most recent hot spots it’s possible to determine where future poaching is likely to be.
“We’re trying to choke the networks at their source,” he said.
He said they are seeing poaching in the same geographical locations.
“Hot spots are much more limited than we thought,” he said.
Wasser said the U.S. is the largest market for illegal wildlife products in the world right now and most ivory is being imported from China, carved into the handles of guns and knives.
“Ultimately if people want to use these things you have to make sure the animal stays alive,” he said.
Wasser said it's a shame that these new regulations may impact people economically, but, he says, the bigger issue is to stop the bleed in ivory.
“You really have to think about the greater good. It’s not just saving the largest land mammal, it’s saving the ecosystem.”
A system in flux
The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking on June 9 urged the Fish & Wildlife to "work with the regulated community" and provide "non-burdensome" permit approvals for non-commercial import and export of products that contain ivory (e.g., orchestra instruments; traveling exhibitions to and from accredited museums etc.), and for "clear and reasonable burden of proof standards" that qualify ivory products as “antiques” that are exempt from the Endangered Species Act.
But they also urged FWS to identify and "foster donation" (e.g., to a museum), disposal and other options that are available to people who own ivory or rhino horn products that can't be traded commercially.
"They want the holders of ivory to give it away or destroy it," said Hunter. "As it is right now, they will be making law abiding citizens into outlaws, so the easiest answer will be to have the people give away their property, if you give it away on your own you have no right to fight the rules."
"Nobody wants to see elephants slaughtered for the ivory," said Hunter. But, he said, there are a lot of unanswered questions. "I don't know if these regulations will even last... nobody does."
Noonan said her group is optimistic there can be a solution that allows the administration to protect the species and reduce poaching while at the same time allow what is essentially legal activity.
"We feel optimistic there are ways to find a solution to this," she said. "Our concern is how long will it take to get there?"