Written By: Heather Clemenceau
When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure that I learned that “E” was for “elephant,” not for “extinction.” But since the time I was in grade school, Africa has lost over 90% of their elephants. Despite an international ivory trade ban being in place, the obscene demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn just keeps growing, largely due to increasing affluence in China. In the Far East a single elephant’s tusks that weigh 10kg will fetch more than $30,000, while rhino horn is selling at $65,000 a kilogram, more than twice the price of gold. As most everyone knows, a tipping point has been reached – more African elephants are being killed each year than are being born. An elephant has one baby only every few years. Factor in natural death and do the math – their end is in sight.
Ivory is often concealed as stag antler, cow bone, bovine bone, angel skin coral, faux ivory, or other natural organic material. Elephant ivory has been the most important source, but ivory from many species including the hippopotamus, walrus, pig, mammoth, sperm whale, and narwhal has been used.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement which came into force in Canada on July 3rd, 1975 and aims to prevent the over-exploitation of wildlife threatened by excessive international trade and illegal poaching. Selling African ivory has been prohibited since 1989. Under the regulations, some people will need to sacrifice certain rights of ivory ownership. Anyone who currently owns an ivory item, and wants to keep it or gift it, is not impacted at all by these regulations. However, owners of ivory without proper documentation (showing it is either antique or acquired legally before the 1989 ban) will not be able to sell it. However, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000 to 40,000 year old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession.
Elephant-sized loopholes, insufficient law enforcement and capitulation by the member states of CITES to pro-ivory trade governments has occasionally allowed sales of enormous amounts of stockpiled ivory. But not all shipments of ivory arrive via someone’s luggage or a
Elephants will be extinct in 10 years at the rate China’s carving factories are churning out prestige pieces, chopsticks and useless doodads. There are 37 massive carving factories in China. The owners could close those factories now, retool to carve in resin, and the poachers would not be paid at the factory door.
shipping container. In 2007, eBay, under pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, banned all international sales of elephant-ivory. But this has done little to prevent elephant ivory products from being trafficked on the world’s online marketplace. eBay and Etsy are largely responsible for much of the illegal ivory transactions in North America. While both sites have have been humiliated into creating official policies, they certainly do not enforce them to the spirit of the agreement, since they are profiting handsomely via fees and commissions from their sellers. This is also true of Craig’s List, Google Shopping, and other online sellers who have no policies at all against facilitating the ivory trade.
Most of the doodads sold as antique ivory today are made to look old but come from elephants that were killed recently in Africa. Illegal products are also getting mixed up with the pre-ban and pre-historic stuff, such as legal mammoth ivory, reclaimed from mass graveyards. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with using ivory from long-dead mammoths, but the average person cannot distinguish between mammoth ivory and elephant ivory – a highly trained individual is still necessary to obtain a positive identification of the species source, sometimes by using techniques such as isotope analysis.
The replica Bechstein Louis XV grand piano. The original was made for Queen Victoria. It is undeniably impressive with its intricate woodcarving and gold leaf, but should a contemporary grand piano have real ivory-topped keys? Reviving traditional craftsmanship is a worthy pursuit. But to use ivory for the keys is a very serious misreading of the tea leaves by this piano company.
Confounding this are the products made (or allegedly made) from hippo tusk, ox bone, warthog ivory, buffalo horn, giraffe and camel bone, in addition to mother-of-pearl, synthetic polymers, and the catch-all phrase, “faux ivory.” Any of these aforementioned terms are used online as “code” for genuine ivory. Visit eBay and search for “faux ivory” or any of these other terms and you’ll see how prevalent it is. If sellers do identify their wares as ivory, they claim that their ivory trinkets are pre-ban, antique, or vintage. But they cannot all be pre-ban relics. An investigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council has found that up to 90 percent of the ivory products sold in stores in Los Angeles is illegal.
Older or antique musical instruments are sometimes made with ivory components. Despite the scourge of poaching, piano maker Bechstein created a world-wide scandal when they used post-ban ivory on a new golden salon grand commissioned for its 160th anniversary and based on a replica of the original gilded piano Carl Bechstein created for Queen Victoria in the late 19th century. It is finished with 24-carat gold leaf, carved from century-old Italian wood and finished with ivory keys. If you can get past the ivory keys, the piano is exquisite and will probably find itself in the parlour of a wealthy buyer in China or some tobacco company executive. But if anyone seriously believes a new piano made with ivory keys rather than other materials is worth more than an elephant then they are deluded. Then again, people still pay to go on those gruesome big game safaris, eat endangered whale meat at high-class restaurants, and wear fur, so I’m not really sure what I’m so surprised about. Singer Billy Joel took to his blog to provide the perfect response to musicians who argue that they need ivory keys for their pianos. Joel writes:
Two keys from our 1936 Steinway piano, inexorably linked with the distasteful business of killing elephants for the purpose of obtaining ivory. For piano keys, the ivory was sliced thin, into laminates that were secured to wooden keys. These keys are all that’s left of our piano, destroyed in a house fire not that long after we brought it up from the US. You can see how warped they are from the heat of the fire.
“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.”
Despite the masses of buttons, buckles, and billiard balls freely available in the online marketplace, musicians are being targeted when travelling with their instruments for competitions and performances. The CITES regulations have created anxiety in the music world, and will cause many working musicians with vintage instruments to reconsider travelling abroad. Both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony were only able to travel internationally after they secured CITES permits, which require a wait time of 30-75 days and cost $75 per certificate.
We brought our 1936 Steinway piano with elephant ivory keys up from the US via railway car, coincidentally right after CITES regulations came into force. At the time we had no idea that there were existing regulations with which we would have to comply in order to import it into Canada. We had never heard of a CITES Import Certificate. You can be sure that we didn’t have any paperwork proving how old it was. If we had called Steinway do you think that they would have had the documentation to prove when and where that ivory was obtained? Had the piano been seized, the keys would have been ripped off it and we probably would have been lumped in together with people who are intentionally trafficking in new ivory.
Today, there are many different materials available to pianomakers. Piano key veneers are made of resin, jade, slate, or clamshell. You can almost hear the elephants trumpeting their approval.
Even if you’re in possession of a CITES certificate, things can still go horribly wrong in the misguided war on musical instruments. Campbell Webster, 17 and Eryk Bean, 17, both from New Hampshire, had their bagpipes seized while travelling between Canada and the US, just two days before they were due to fly to Scotland for the World Pipe Band Championships. Webster’s £6,000 pipes, which were previously used by his father in his role as an official piper to the Queen, were confiscated by officials because they are made out of ivory. All this was due to the boys’ failure to cross at the designated port. In another example of overreaching authority, The Fish and Wild Life Service confiscated a 73 year-old piano and would not release it to the owner until the ivory had been stripped from it. In 2014, a Canadian string player studying in New York cancelled his audition in Winnipeg, fearing his bow with an ivory bridge would be confiscated on return to the States. To serious violinists, the bow is almost as important as the violin itself.
The ivory trade is a pretty despicable industry – the domain of the world’s most vicious and heavily armed militants. It’s hard to believe that the killing, trafficking, and terrorism are being committed solely out of the desire for animal teeth. Whatever can be done to stop the trade, then I’m all for it. But confiscating or damaging these musical instruments is a ridiculous action in the face of so many ivory pieces being sold internationally.
Do governments really believe that ivory is being trafficked as antique bagpipes, piano keys, and violin bridges or bows? It’s pretty obvious when you have a musician transporting an older musical instrument that just happens to be laden with ivory… as opposed to someone with a couple massive tusks in their checked bag. Confiscating bagpipes from teenagers and hassling other musicians with vintage instruments is not the way to go about it – no one is playing that instrument *because* it has ivory – they have the instrument due to its quality. These are good and well-intended regulations, but they’ve got to be refined so they accomplish their intended goals without needlessly complicating the lives of musicians. We need higher penalties for violators, online retailers, traffickers and especially for big game hunters who can currently legally kill elephants and bring home the ivory.
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