Traveling Musicians Breathe A Sigh Of Relief As Ban On African Ivory Relaxes

Alan Valentine, who leads the Nashville Symphony, pictured above, says he is relieved that the federal government loosened its ban on ivory products into the U.S. Credit: Bill Steber/Nashville Symphony

The Nashville Symphony  in performance.  Alan Valentine, the Symphony’s president and CEO, not pictured above, says he is relieved that the federal government loosened its ban on ivory products into the U.S. Credit: Bill Steber/Nashville Symphony

The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it plans to relax a ban on African elephant ivory. The exemption is intended to let musicians travel overseas without their instruments getting confiscated.

Ivory is found in some old, high-end guitar fretboards, in addition to being used as an integral part of some violin and viola bows.

But in February, federal officials banned all ivory products from entering the U.S., and some musicians were worried — especially ones who play around the globe, like Nashville-based viola player Jim Larson.

“I remember people freaking out and posting things all over Facebook and social media saying, ‘What do I do? What do I do? I have to travel.’”

Larson plays with an ivory-tipped bow, and he hadn’t had any problems. Now the federal government is saying he never will.

Alan Valentine, the president of the Nashville Symphony, said while the regulation was well-intentioned, it was onerous to musicians. “It would severely restrict international cultural activity,” he said.

Federal regulators say the ban was supposed to address the rising number of African elephants that are poached annually — some estimates say 35,000 African elephants were slaughtered in 2013 to meet the demand for ivory around the world.

The backlash echoed loudly. Foreign musicians groups banded together online threatening to boycott American performances. Country star Vince Gill was an outspoken critic, saying touring overseas with antique guitars and other instruments would be nearly impossible under the rule. 

Federal officials responded by added an exemption for all instruments. The law still bans the import of ivory in other products.

“We know that for musicians, their instruments are their livelihood,” Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe told reporters on Thursday. “Our goal is to ease the burden on musicians traveling with instruments that contain ivory without diminishing the protection for African elephants.”

Musicians traveling abroad with ivory products are still required to apply for a certificate, which they can do online.

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.