- Written by Christian Wissmuller
- Published: 07 July 2014
The Federal government and individual state governments have been cracking down on the commercial ivory trade of late. In June, the New York State Legislature passed a landmark ruling amending the state’s environmental law to ban elephant ivory sales with only a few exceptions for antiquaes, certain musical instruments made before 1975, and transfers for educational or scientific purposes or through the distribution of estates. Governor Cuomo has not yet signed all of this into law, but he is expected to do so.
The Humane Society of the United States and The Wildlife Conservation Society have praised the move, actors Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage have voiced their support for the legislation, and the piano man himself approves, as well. On June 18th, Billy Joel posted the following on his website:
To whom it may concern:
I wholeheartedly support the ivory sales ban bill pending in New York State.
I am a piano player. And I realize that ivory piano keys are preferred by some pianists.
But a preference for ivory keys does not justify the slaughter of 96 elephants every day.
There are other materials which can be substituted for piano keys.
But magnificent creatures like these can never be replaced.
Music must never be used as an excuse to destroy an endangered species.
Music should be a celebration of life – not an instrument of death.
So there you have it – most people are against the needless slaughter of animals to harvest body parts (right?) and well-respected musicians are saying, “Hey, just find alternatives to ivory and deal with it – it’s the right and moral thing to do.” Seems pretty cut and dried, whether in the state of New York, or applied nation-wide.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” says famed violinist Itzhak Perlman. “The tip of the bow is going to save the African elephant? Why don’t they go after the poachers? It’s very terrible what’s happening [in Africa], but why do you have to make a point on the backs of string players?”
What’s got Perlman so upset?
Well, on May 31 U.S. customs seized seven violin bows belonging to Hungarian musicians set to play at NYC’s Lincoln Center. The players had certificates stating that the bows contained no ivory, but customs disagreed, saying they weren’t the right kind of certificates and that they couldn’t be sure that the bows were ivory-free. Ultimately the bows were returned when the musicians left the U.S. – but not until after they had paid a fine of $525.
It’s not that difficult (usually) to date, say, a guitar by referencing its serial number, but – to go back to Perlman’s quote – how many violin bows have serial numbers or documentation? Can every violinist out there indisputably prove that the tip of his or her bow isn’t crafted from ivory?
In a June Forbes article, author Doug Bandow wrote, “FWS [U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service] plans to prohibit the sale of any antique (100 year-old) ivory the age of which the owner cannot ‘demonstrate’ with ‘documented evidence.’ Even with ‘documented evidence,’ old though non-antique ivories could not be sold across state lines. Since 17th century carvers were not in the habit of providing certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.”
George Gruhn of Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars is another vocal opponent to the restrictions being proposed (he’s also this issue’s “In the Trenches” author – see page 84) and he submitted a message to the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking who met on June 9. An excerpt appears below:
…I implore you to avoid setting unreasonable standards or putting overzealous regulations into place which would be counterproductive to trade and which would prevent the preservation of many truly fine vintage instruments without truly doing anything helpful for the conservation of living elephants or to stem the illegal ivory trade.
It’s possible – just possible – that Billy Joel, Meryl Streep and others in favor of the policies being considered in the halls of government haven’t read the fine print. While it’s doubtful that the day will come when government agents will march up to your home (or your store) demanding all your violin bows, vintage guitars, and pianos, this is an ongoing topic to pay attention to.
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