Cox Violins Blog

The “Ivory Ban”

and what it means for traveling musicians

Here are a few updates from recent Washington Post issues:

From Arts & Style Section, January 1, 2016: Ivory, at the tip of a complex issue for traveling orchestra members

Letter to the Editor, January 6, 2016: When traveling with musical instruments gets complicated

Letter to the Editor from Dan Ashe, Director, US Fish & Wildlife Service, January 17, 2016: Ivory belongs only in elephant symphonies
Original Post

There has been a lot of chatter about the “Ivory Ban” and a growing awareness of the vulnerability of musicians traveling with instruments that contain protected plant and animal materials. We’ve been asked for guidance recently and while definitive answers have eluded us, we continue to study the issue. The ultimate goal, to protect endangered species, is a worthy one.

African Elephant

African Elephant

“It is unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any plant, with some limited exceptions, taken or traded in violation of the laws of the US, a State, Indian Tribe, or any foreign law that protects plants or animals,”  – paraphrasing a US Fish and Wildlife Service Fact Sheet for Musicians & Manufacturers of Musical Instruments.

In two separate incidents in May of 2014, string instrument bows were seized by US Customs officials under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 and the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES – pronounced “SIGH-tees”).

While these protections for wildlife have been in place for many years, a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act, a 1900 conservation law originally focused on helping States safeguard game species and keeping harmful exotic wildlife out of this country, has broadened the number of species covered by these laws and conventions and has resulted in a heightening of attention at US ports of entry. Customs officials are now taking an interest in musical instruments with particular focus on these species that might be found in your instruments, including but not limited to:

  • Elephant Ivory (bow tips, facings, frogs; instrument nuts)
  • Brazilian Rosewood (bows, pegs, chinrests; guitars)
  • Tortoiseshell, Monitor Lizard, Whalebone

If you travel abroad with an instrument that includes any of these materials, and you are without proper documentation, your instruments may be seized either on returning to the US or at the port of entry of another country which is a signatory to the CITES agreement. Most recent attention has been on the “Ivory Ban”, as that is the material most likely found in your bow or your fiddle. It’s not too big a stretch to imagine that the inspectors at the border are going to be suspicious of any material that looks like ivory, whether it is or it isn’t.

We think it is advisable to be informed and prepared – not an easy thing, when we keep hearing contradictory information from the government agencies whose province this is. We hear that the Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a ‘passport’ that you can obtain to travel with your instruments. We hear that the border controls will ease restrictions on musicians, but then we hear that 7 bows were seized at JFK.

What can we do?
It is still unclear what the best strategy is, but here are a few things you can do to try to avoid problems:

  • Buyer Beware! Make sure you know and can document the materials used in any instrument or bow purchased after February 25, 2014.
  • Apply for the CITES certificate from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Educate yourself about the latest events & requirements (see links below).
  • If you suspect your bow has ivory fittings, have them removed and replaced with a substance that does not resemble ivory – silver, for example, OR
  • Plan to travel with a bow that you know and can prove contains none of the restricted plant or animal materials.

Here are some links with information & opinions that may be helpful:

This content is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any subject matter. This website should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

UPDATE 8/29/14

In an effort to understand the requirements and process better, I decided to try to follow the rules with my own bow. I am planning to travel internationally this fall, with my fiddle, so it isn’t just an academic exercise. Here’s what I did, and what I learned:

First I took my bow to a certified appraiser to learn as much as possible about the material included. He included not only the common names of the material but also the Latin names. My bow has:

  • Pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata)
  • Ebony (Diospyros)
  • Nickel
  • Mother-of-Pearl (Pinctada maxima)
  • Domestic Goat Skin (Capra aegagrus hircus)
  • Mammoth Ivory (Mammuthus primigenius)

None of the materials in my bow are controlled under CITES or the ESA. Of those materials, two might cause problems at the port of entry:  mother-of-pearl and mammoth ivory. Mother of Pearl is a wildlife product and must be declared if one is traveling commercially, and mammoth ivory might be mistaken for elephant ivory by the untrained.

Since none of the material is controlled, I wasn’t sure about my next step, so I called Fish & Wildlife in Falls Church, Virginia: 1-800-358-2104. I left a message and someone called me back within a couple of hours. Before I listed the materials in my bow, he told me I would need form #3-200-88. Once I told him what materials were present, he recommended that I call the Fish & Wildlife Law Enforcement Inspector at the port of entry (Boston’s Logan Airport) to ask them what I would need to do. He did not think that I would get a certificate since none of the materials are listed under CITES or ESA; but the mammoth ivory could be a problem.

I called F&W LEI Jennifer Irving in Boston and spoke with her. Once again I described the situation: I am a violinist, planning to travel in October with my instrument, I work for a violin maker, we want to understand the process, here’s what’s in my bow, etc., etc. Ms. Irving took the time to explain that because I am traveling for personal reasons and not commercially, I did not have to do anything special. She recommended that on arriving in the US I should declare the mammoth ivory in my bow tip, and that I should bring with me a copy of the appraisal that details the material in the bow. She said you cannot get in trouble for declaring something that need not be declared, but that you can get into trouble for not declaring something that should be. She also said that it would be a waste of time and money to apply for a CITES certificate on an item that has no listed materials in it.

I also learned that they treat those who travel for personal purposes (me) differently from commercial travelers (including those hoping to sell instruments and professional musicians). So if you are traveling professionally, you might want to be more proactive about documenting and declaring your instruments, as you are likely to be scrutinized more carefully both coming and going. And if you are traveling commercially, you should obtain whatever permits and certificates you need in advance or your wares might be seized or at least detained.

It’s a little disappointing that this is the end of my exploration – at least as regards my own bow. I was looking forward to going through the process of applying for the CITES certificate, but there’s no reason to do so. I will continue to gather information as it comes my way and will update this post with anything that might be relevant.

UPDATE 11/6/14

I revisited the subject today, as it came up in conversation with a client. I spent a little time looking at the FWS website and found something new to me – the “Ivory Crush” page. It’s worth a look to convince yourself of the seriousness of the poaching crisis.