Ivory, at the tip of a complex issue for traveling orchestra members


Washington Post

Date Published

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It’s a mere quarter of a gram of ivory — about  1/100 of an ounce — embedded at the bottom tip of many violin bows. But because it comes from the tusks of the African elephant, its presence — often on the bow tips of viola, cello and bass players as well — has become a major headache for U.S. orchestras and soloists leaving the country for tours overseas.

Overlapping state, federal and international rules designed to stop the horrific poaching of the world’s largest land animal have resulted in a regulatory web that has enveloped the rarefied world of the symphony orchestra, the tiny clique of artisans who make bows and the thousands of professional string players across the country. (Then there’s the odd bassoonist, whose instrument sometimes has an ivory band around the bell, and a subset of bagpipers who perform on instruments with more than half a dozen ivory parts.)

In a classic Washington case of unintended consequences, the Obama administration’s widely lauded efforts in the past two years to impose a near-total ban on ivory importation has ensnared not only classical musicians, but also builders of pipe organs, guitar players, cane collectors, antiques dealers and even members of the National Rifle Association who collect, trade and sell weapons with ivory rifle stocks or ivory pistol grips.

But it is arguably classical musicians, especially those who travel outside the United States for concerts, auditions and even teaching gigs, who have squawked the loudest, and in a large number of cases have changed out the offending ivory components in their instruments — or simply decided to leave behind that $100,000, ivory-tipped, early-19th-century François Tourte bow.

Navigating the guidelines

No musician wants to be seen as supporting the poaching of African elephants, whose population as recently as 1979 was more than a million but is believed to have collapsed to below half of that. It’s just that few, if any, musicians think their ivory-tipped cello bows are contributing to the poaching crisis. “I’m a big animal freak. I think what [conservationists are] doing is wonderful; shut these poachers down,” said Lewis Lipnick, the National Symphony Orchestra’s contrabassoonist. “But no one is going to kill elephants for bows or bassoon bell rings.”

An 18th century violin bow adorned with an ivory tip, on December, 16, 2015 in Alexandria, VA. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the job of enforcing the ivory import ban, acknowledges as much. Guidelines laid out by Fish and Wildlife, which is part of the Department of the Interior, “provide adequate assurances” that taking a musical instrument in and out of the country “would not contribute to either the illegal trade in elephant ivory or the illegal killing of elephants.”

The catch, of course, is following those guidelines, which involves walking a fine line between two federal statutes — the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989 — and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES.

“The whole realm of ivory is one of the more complicated areas of wildlife law,” said Craig Hoover, a former officer at the World Wildlife Fund and now chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Management Authority and the government’s point person on ivory regulations.

And it’s been made even more complicated by efforts to carve out exceptions so that string musicians can, for example, travel with ivory-tipped bows. “We’ve created some additional complexity explicitly to accommodate certain activities,” Hoover said, in what is certainly a bureaucratic understatement.

First, a musician who wants to go abroad and whose instrument contains ivory needs to obtain a CITES musical-instrument certificate, or “passport.” To do that, the musician must provide proof that the African elephant that yielded the ivory used in the instrument was “removed from the wild” before Feb. 26, 1976, the date African elephants were listed in one of the three CITES appendixes. Depending on the pedigree of the musical instrument, it may be possible to obtain a date of manufacture from the maker. But often, it is not.

“I’ve got five drum sets, and some of my drums have ivory inlays,” said Raymond Hair Jr., the international president of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents about 85,000 musicians in the United States and Canada. “I don’t have the receipts for any of them. No musician keeps that stuff for 30 to 40 years.”

Jumping through hoops

But even if you can prove that your ivory-tipped viola bow was made well before the 1976 cutoff date, “that’s the least burdensome part of the process,” said Heather Noonan, the chief lobbyist for the League of American Orchestras.

An 18th century violin bow adorned with ivory, on December, 16, 2015 in Alexandria, VA. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

In fact, the challenge only becomes more complicated. Musicians traveling with a CITES passport have to leave and reenter the country through one of 18 U.S. ports designated for animal material, which includes not just ivory but, for example, also the hawksbill sea turtle — another protected species from which material is harvested for use on the grips of bows. “If you have a tortoiseshell frog, an ivory tip and a whalebone winding, I’d say, ‘Bring something else,’ ” said Christopher Germain, a Philadelphia-based violin-maker, referring to the baleen whalebone thread that is sometimes wound around the bow grip.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened when Germain spent three days with the National Symphony Orchestra in early December assessing some 70 violins, violas, cellos and basses, and 110 bows. The orchestra is leaving in early February for a European tour.

“We found four or five bows with whalebone or tortoiseshell, and that’s just too difficult to permit,” said orchestra manager Cynthia Steele. “I was told you would have to identify the actual subspecies of whale used, and the tortoiseshell bow would have to have been purchased before 1973.”

Otherwise, Steele said, the NSO will be applying for CITES permits for the 46 bows its members are taking with ivory tips, the 16 bows with white oyster, which, although not a banned substance, must still be declared, and the 21 bows with water-monitor-lizard skin on the grip.

“People are relieved there is a process now, and they can take these 46 bows with them.” Steele said. “A few years ago, a lot of people were worried they’d need to get a new bow.”

Of course, if your violin happens to be older — 200- and 300-year-old violins are not uncommon in major symphony orchestras — and has any Brazilian rosewood, a CITES-listed plant species, you must pass through one of 15 U.S. ports where Department of Agriculture inspectors check for endangered plants. And if your bow has ivory and your violin contains Brazilian rosewood, there are just nine U.S. ports with both Fish and Wildlife and Agriculture Department inspectors.

And that’s not all. If you are not traveling through a designated port between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., you have to pay a $105 overtime fee for an inspector to come in early or stay late. And you have to email the Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife form to the Fish and Wildlife port office 48 hours ahead of time.

‘You feel like a criminal’

It was this sort of hassle that led bassoonist Joseph Grimmer, whose July 22 post in his blog lays out in detail every step of the process, to finally have the ivory bell ring on his 1956 bassoon, made by the venerable German company Heckel, removed and replaced with plastic.

“The whole thing feels like, well, you’ve bought this instrument and played it for decades and then you find out there’s contraband on it,” said Grimmer, the principal bassoonist at the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, referring to the ivory ring. “You feel like a criminal. It’s very bizarre.”

But he said it also felt wrong to damage the physical integrity of a nearly 60-year-old instrument. “When I was at Heckel, I asked if they did any ivory removals, and they seemed very offended.”

The complexity of the rules and the vagaries of the inspection process have scared off some musicians from traveling with bows that do not even have elephant ivory but a widely used and perfectly legal substitute: ivory from long-dead woolly mammoths uncovered by hunters or the thawing of the Arctic permafrost.

Although it is possible to tell the two materials apart by examining the angle of the cross-hatching on elephant and mammoth ivory — the so-called Schreger lines — violist Kristen Linfante said she could never be sure that the Fish and Wildlife inspector on duty would make the correct determination, although the onus is on the inspector to prove any suspicion that the substance is from a regulated species rather than from a mammoth. As a result, she noted, when her Baroque ensemble, the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire, made its debut this summer at the BBC Proms, its most important show ever, “I had to play on a $100 Baroque bow.”

Right now, there is a lengthy, proposed rule by the Fish and Wildlife Service that, when the final version is released sometime this year, should at least make the current rules permanent. So controversial is the subject that Hoover says more than a million comments were received, most of them robo-comments, but at least a few thousand of which were substantive.

The League of American Orchestras said the best solution would be a “personal effects” exemption for musical instruments sent by cargo, although it’s unclear whether Fish and Wildlife agrees. Meanwhile, says the league’s lobbyist Noonan, “folks just want to know how they can get through this process so their tours aren’t jeopardized.”

The complexity of the ivory rules has even led some foreign orchestras to question whether it’s worth a tour to the United States, says longtime New York bowmaker Yung Chin, who is president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Some may have been spooked by the 2014 seizure at Kennedy Airport of seven bows belonging to members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra because they had what Fish and Wildlife officials believed were ivory tips.

Although the bows were returned when the musicians left the United States, “some very famous orchestras have openly said: ‘Is it worth it to come to the U.S., to come to New York?’” says Chin. In 2012, according to the league, foreign guest artists were hired by U.S. orchestras to play in the United States more than 1,200 times.

“I don’t know one person in my trade is in favor of the hunting and killing of elephants, I personally think it’s abominable,” he added. “But people should think about the sustainability of the arts as well.”