Ivory Ban Impact on Orchestras


Following a new Obama Administration effort to protect African elephants from poaching by combating illegal trade in ivory, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ordered strict enforcement procedures related to the Endangered Species Act and the African Elephant Conservation Act.  According to a February 25, 2014 order, many instruments containing African elephant ivory would not be allowed into the U.S., even if a musician is simply returning to the U.S. with instruments in their personal possession, not intended for sale. The original order prevented travel into the U.S. with instruments containing ivory that had been purchased since February 26, 1976.  A great many musical instruments containing African elephant ivory, while legally manufactured and acquired, have been purchased after 1976, and would have been completely prohibited from entering into the U.S. It is not uncommon for professional orchestra musicians, particularly string players, to perform with instruments that contain small amounts of ivory, most frequently found in the tips of bows. It can be difficult to distinguish African elephant ivory from other types of ivory used in minute amounts. African elephant ivory can also be found in an array of older string, wind, and percussion instruments; however, there is no longer a demand for using elephant ivory to create new instruments.

In response to urgent appeals from the League and other national stakeholders, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agreed to ease the restrictions on musical instruments.  Director’s Order 210 was amended on May 15, 2014 to allow travel with instruments purchased prior to February 25, 2014 that contain African elephant ivory.

Under the latest version of the rules, a musical instrument that contains African elephant ivory may only be brought into the U.S. if the worked African elephant ivory meets all of the following criteria:

  • The African elephant ivory contained in the instrument was legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976;
  • The instrument has not subsequently been transferred from one person to another person for financial gain or profit since February 25, 2014;
  • The person or group traveling with the instrument qualifies for a CITES musical instrument certificate; and
  • The musical instrument containing African elephant ivory is accompanied by a valid CITES musical instrument certificate or an equivalent CITES document.

While widening the scope of instruments eligible for travel across U.S. borders is a step in the right direction, many serious questions and concerns remain: 

  • It is unclear at this time what documentation will be sufficient to prove that an instrument was purchased prior to February 25, 2014. And, instruments purchased after that date, if they contain African elephant ivory, will be banned from entering the U.S.
  • A reliable system has not been built for obtaining CITES passports and navigating complicated enforcement procedures at U.S. ports of entry and departure, and across the globe. The costs, uncertainty, and risks associated with attempting to travel with permits is a barrier to international cultural activity.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposals to prohibit future domestic sale and re-sale of legally-crafted instruments that contain very small amounts of ivory may strip essential musical instruments of their value, and render them unavailable for use by future generations of musicians.

The music community is fully committed to the goals of wildlife conservation and combating illegal trade in ivory and other protected species.  We are asking for a reasonable solution that protects the domestic and international use of musicians’ tools of their trade, and preserves the use of historically and legally made instruments now and for future generations to come.  The League is in ongoing dialogue with the Administration and key policy leaders to continue to seek solutions that address wildlife conservation goals while also protecting international musical activity that requires musicians to travel across borders with the tools of their trade.

League of American Orchestras Statements:


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