- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - About a century ago, a French craftsman built Kristen Linfante’s viola bow out of wood, silver, ebony, horsehair and mother-of-pearl.

At its tip, sandwiched between the horsehair and the wood, lies a slice of elephant ivory so small that you might not notice it unless you were looking for it.

These days, government inspectors are looking for it.

To stave off the decline of endangered species populations and curb wildlife trafficking, the Obama administration has put in stiff restrictions on the transport of items containing African elephant ivory and other materials into the U.S.

But this well-intentioned policy has had some unintended consequences: It’s created a nightmare for traveling classical musicians who have small amounts of elephant ivory, Brazilian rosewood and tortoiseshell in their instruments, which were made when these species were plentiful and poaching laws or deforestation concerns were nonexistent.

Linfante, 48, the executive director of Chamber Music Pittsburgh, has owned her bow since she was a teenager; she considers it an extension of her arm. Like countless musicians, she fears that if she travels with the bow, she could lose it. The League of American Orchestras has led a group of music organizations advocating for accommodations to these bans for musical instruments.

With dozens of its own members potentially affected, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been taking note of the federal requirements. Next spring, the orchestra will travel to Europe for its first concert tour under the newly enforced ban. If the rules are not changed, some musicians may opt to replace regulated wildlife materials in their instruments or bring alternatives. That is already happening.

“I have not been traveling outside the country with anything with ivory on it,” said renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a recent interview with the Post-Gazette.

Treasured materials

Ivory from elephants and mammoths is a common material in stringed-instrument bows, bassoons, piano keys and guitars; historically, it was used for its strength and lightness, said Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras. Some woodwind instruments are carved out of rare Brazilian rosewood; Hawksbill sea turtle shell, better known as tortoiseshell, decorates guitars or appears on bows.

Bringing African elephant ivory into the U.S. has been prohibited since 1989, but until recently those rules had not been enforced for classical musicians.

“It was really only in the last couple years that we were made aware that a lot of these permit restrictions even existed,” said Sonja Winkler, the PSO’s former director of orchestra operations and touring.

Over the last two years, a presidential executive order and the development of a national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking compelled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action. The agency issued Director’s Order 210, which aimed to narrow the scope of exemptions to the African elephant ivory ban and to beef up regulation of wildlife materials.

Few would argue against the crackdown on wildlife trafficking. The outlook is bleak for the African elephant, and it’s even worse for tigers and rhinos. Habitat loss, human conflict and a dramatic rise in poaching have ravaged their numbers.

“From our perspective, what we’re really seeing is a crisis. The levels of poaching, the levels of illegal trade, are unprecedented,” said Craig Hoover, chief of the Wildlife Trade and Conservation branch of the Wildlife Service.

In several Asian countries, consumers pay top dollar for ivory, rhino horn and other materials used for decorations and traditional medicines. As the supply of animals dwindles and the demand increases, the prices rise - up to $35,000 a pound, in the case of rhino horn. In 2012, government officials seized more than $2 million in elephant ivory from stores in New York City.

In some African nations, the illegal ivory trade has emboldened terrorist groups such as Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army, which have slaughtered endangered species and harvested their lucrative materials to fund their criminal activities.

Seeking accommodations

But musicians believe accommodations should be made for the tools of their trade. For most, the ban was enforced after they had acquired their instruments, which could have been crafted decades or centuries before African elephants were listed as threatened species, in 1976. Modern instrument makers generally don’t use regulated materials, and older instruments aren’t contributing to today’s poaching problems.

The most pressing challenge for musicians, however, is complying with fiendishly complex regulations - and worrying about missing some small detail in that process.

The government recommends that American musicians apply for musical instrument passports 60 days in advance of an overseas trip. To get their instruments evaluated and their permits stamped, musicians must go through specific U.S. ports that have inspectors from the Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, or both, in the case of ensembles that have instruments containing Brazilian rosewood and elephant ivory. (Pittsburgh, for one, is not an entry point.) Those ports have limited hours and a small number of inspectors available, Noonan said, and can’t always confirm that anyone will be around to check musical instruments. On nights and weekends, musicians must arrange and pay overtime for off-hours inspections.

Among musicians, the greatest fear is that an instrument could be confiscated - or worse. There are few instances of such seizures, and neither Noonan nor Hoover knows of any cases in which instruments were destroyed under these rules.

Last spring, the Budapest Festival Orchestra had seven bows detained for the duration of a concert tour to New York. The orchestra, which claimed the bows didn’t contain elephant ivory, borrowed substitutes for two performances at Lincoln Center and retrieved theirs at the end of the trip.

Musicians, Noonan said, are being retrofitted into a system not designed for their violins and oboes and bows. Oftentimes, players don’t even realize their instruments have regulated materials, but to acquire a permit, they need to prove purchases they could have made decades earlier.

“Obviously, the music community is completely supportive of the goals of conservation,” she said. “Our hope is the policies can be adjusted so that musicians can reliably navigate their usual travel, and we have good reason to believe that kind of policy change can happen without impinging on conservation efforts.”

Another concern is that the rules, or the alternative of stripping instruments of banned materials, could affect their market value. Players often sell instruments at the end of their careers to fund their retirements.

Beyond the immediate goals of helping musicians sort through the procedures, the League of American Orchestras is advocating for long-term solutions: removing transport restrictions on legally crafted instruments purchased since Feb. 25, 2014; implementing a personal effects exemption; and creating a long-term system that would allow musicians to easily bring their instruments abroad and back.

Sometime this winter, the Wildlife Service will call for public comment on a proposed rule about how African elephant ivory can be traded. The final version likely won’t be finalized until late this year, Hoover said.

Tough choices

For traveling musicians, the alternative to getting a permit is buying or borrowing a new instrument or making alterations to existing ones. Those options are unappealing to many players for whom instruments are intensely personal items.

These days, when Linfante travels abroad, she opts to bring and play with inferior viola bows. The ivory tip, tiny as it is at less than a square inch, affects the bow’s balance and weight, and she would never alter it.

“It’s like carrying around a piece of artwork,” she said. “No one could suggest that a change be made to the Mona Lisa.”

If the restrictions aren’t changed before the PSO’s next tour, principal contrabassonist Jim Rodgers plans to replace the ivory bell ring on his bassoon (which he calls “Betty”) with another material, such as maple. Moose antler is another option, but he’s worried that, too, will be added to the banned-materials list.

Although he would rather not make the change, Rodgers doesn’t have a sentimental attachment to the ivory, which protects the wood at the top of the German-made bassoon; nor does he expect a new bell ring to affect its sound.

Still, removing the tightly glued ivory could damage the instrument. That would be the worst-case scenario. For this bassoonist, this bassoon is irreplaceable.

“It’s probably not practical, but I would probably sell my house before I sold my bassoon,” he said.

“It’s not just a chunk of wood.”

Indeed, that’s the problem.

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com


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