Strict Obama administration ivory ban infuriates musicians

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Professional musicians are in an uproar over an Obama administration order that virtually bans the movement of ivory over the U.S. border, including that which is found in many musical instruments.

The order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is meant to crack down on the illegal sale of African elephant ivory, but it has also made it nearly impossible for orchestras, symphonies and individual performers to travel with the tools of their trade. The ban is expected to be enforced sometime this summer.

“[T]he entire American arts community has reacted negatively to this new ban that was prompted by President Obama’s February 11 announcement that the U.S. will now join the rest of the world in attempting to curb African rhinoceros and elephant poaching in order to discourage illegal trafficking in rhino and elephant tusks, driven in large part by rising demand in China,” wrote Raymond Hair, the president of the American Federation of Musicians, in a letter to its members that was provided to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“With the serious implications to the livelihood of professional musicians across the country uppermost in mind, the AFM is currently using its congressional influence to revise the governmental rulemaking process at the highest levels of the federal government,” he wrote.

The AFM has written a letter to President Obama and Congress, and started a petition, asking for the new rule to be rescinded or amended to allow for exemptions “for musical instruments legitimately purchased containing … African Elephant Ivory.”

Ivory is used in pianos, but also in bows for stringed instruments and in some wind instruments like bassoons.

Gary Moody, a music professor at Colorado State University, is part of a faculty chamber ensemble scheduled to perform at a wind instrument festival in Austria this summer, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to take his bassoon with him. Its bell ring, located at the top of the instrument, is made of ivory.

“I had no problem in the past traveling with my instrument internationally,” he told the Daily Caller News Foundation, “but as of this ruling now that’s a problem. My choice is to not take this instrument and borrow a lesser quality instrument to do my job, or to take this particular instrument and risk not having it allowed back into the U.S.”

Moody is hardly alone. A Canadian double bass student studying in New York cancelled an audition with the Winnipeg Symphony because he didn’t want to risk having his bow confiscated at the border, according to the CBC. The Pittsburgh Symphony “strongly recommended” in a memo that its members not travel internationally with their instruments. The League of American Orchestras sent a similar warning to touring symphonies, those whose members live abroad and individual performers.

“A great many professional orchestra musicians, particularly string players, perform with instruments that contain small amounts of ivory, most frequently found in the tips of bows,” wrote president and CEO Jesse Rosen. “While the timeline for strict enforcement of this policy at U.S. borders is uncertain, it could occur at any time.”

There are exceptions to the rule, but they are onerous — the only instruments qualified to travel must have been purchased before the first international bans on the ivory trade in 1976, and musicians must gather documents to obtain certification for them under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Those who can’t prove the pedigree of their instruments, or who bought them after 1976, are out of luck. Not only can they not travel with them, their resale value will likely plummet as well.

“It’s not going to save the elephant’s life whose bit of ivory is on my 60-year-old instrument,” Moody said, noting that although his bassoon was built in 1954, he bought it in 1979 — meaning it doesn’t qualify for a travel exemption.

Other musicians “are not going to buy it because it has some ivory,” he said. “They’re not going to want to buy it and deal with the kind of hassles I have to deal with it.”

“I’m upset that I’ve done everything legally along the way and now I can’t continue to use my own legally purchased property” overseas, he said.

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