Long life

America's crazy war on old pianos

Too-tough rules on ivory may hurt elephants, not help them

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

More than 20 years ago, when I was living in New York, I wrote an article about the mutilation by the United States government of a fine old piano on the pretext of saving the African elephant. The piano was a 1920 concert grand from the once famous Parisian house of Érard, from which came the favourite piano of Franz Liszt. It had been bought in Paris by the Israeli–American pianist Ophra Yerushalmi, a huge admirer of the Hungarian virtuoso, and flown by her at great expense to New York, where it had been seized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the grounds that it had ivory-coated keys.

Well, of course, until recently all piano keys had ivory on them, and this particular piano was then 73 years old. But the Fish and Wild Life Service would not release it to Mrs Yerushalmi until the ivory had been stripped from it and returned to France. This was done in accordance with the 1988 African Elephant Conservation Act, which had been enacted in response to an international agreement to ban trade in ivory; and it prohibited the importation to the United States of any African elephant ivory, new or old, worked or unworked, unless the article containing it was more than 100 years old. So the old Érard piano came to languish in Mrs Yerushalmi’s New York apartment, unplayed and unplayable, a useless, mutilated object.


The timing of the new law was strange because, following an earlier decline in the African elephant population, numbers had picked up again, and in some places excessively so. Elephants are charming in their way, but they also attack people and trample their crops. We would hate them to die out, of course, but at the same time we don’t want too many of them. According to some of the best expert opinion in the conservation field, there was no need for such a ruthless ban on ivory trading. But such was the hysteria whipped up by the media and wildlife charities that public opinion persuaded the American government to adopt this stupid measure. You’d think that by now it might have recognised its foolishness; but on the contrary, it has recently made the constraints on ivory trading tighter still.

Another piano story has now been in the news. An upright piano built by Steinway in New York in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln was president, is being denied re-entry into the United States because its owner, an American who took it with him to Japan when he moved there for a while, has failed to provide proof of its age and provenance. No matter that Steinway believes it to be the first-ever upright piano made in the United States, it will retain its pariah status until there is unimpeachable documentation to prove it. Under the latest regulations, it is more or less impossible to import, export, buy, or sell any object containing ivory without such documentation; and in cases involving old musical instruments, guns, chess sets, bracelets, walking sticks, or other ivory antiques, there is seldom any paperwork available.

Not only is this very hard on people who find that their once valuable collections of old ivory objects have become almost worthless; it is highly questionable whether it is of any help to the elephant. Elephant-decline panic is a bit like climate-change panic; it is based on controversial statistics and disagreement about its causes. But even if we accept that the African elephant population is in free-fall, and that this is almost entirely because of illegal poaching to feed the huge demand for ivory in China, we must surely wonder whether a ban on selling an ivory-handled Georgian silver teapot in New York is going to make much difference.

Some people argue, on the contrary, that these new American regulations will cause ivory prices to rise dramatically and thus boost the black market and encourage more poaching, as may the government’s bizarre decision last November to crush six tons of confiscated contraband ivory rather than make it available to meet a now desperate need for ivory to restore or otherwise refurbish damaged antiques. Long live Nellie, Jumbo and all the other elephants. It would be an awful shame if America’s underrated proclivity for petty, rigid bureaucracy were to hasten their demise.

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  • Thomas Wayne

    It’s been said, and proven throughout time, that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

    The worldwide embargo on the trade in elephant ivory was fully enacted in 1990. By 1995, just five years later, elephant populations in a number of African regions had grown so quickly it had become a real problem. For example, Hwange National Park had such an explosion of herd growth they desperately needed to
    do something about it.

    So Peter Mundy, chief ecologist of the Hwange’s Wildlife Department, put out a
    call for others to take 5,000 elephants off their hands:

    http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1995/5-000-Elephants-to-Be-Sold-or-Killed/id-2fcaf5817eca43bd8b1c10a8e9b8d6e6

    The Associated Press picked up the story and it ended up in newspapers as far away as Spokane, Washington:
    http://www.spokesman.com/stories/1995/jan/05/zimbabwe-to-sell-or-kill-elephants/

    To summarize that story, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe had a maximum practical capacity of 20,000 elephants they could manage. They were overpopulated to a total of 31,000 elephants and needed to get rid of at least 5,000 healthy elephants, either by finding homes for them or by destroying them. This was a mere five years after the same elephants had been listed as an “appendix 1 endangered species”.

    One might think this 1995 event was a one-time anomaly, but that is not in the case. In 2003 the same Peter Mundy led a BFA (Biodiversity Foundation of Africa) seminar exploring the ongoing overpopulation problem, and published this synopsis:
    http://www.biodiversityfoundation.org/documents/s20.pdf

    In the ensuing years there have been numerous similar seminars and symposiums, and although the White House and USFWS have worked hard in the last few month to hide it, the fact is the greatest threat elephant in the wild face is not poaching. The problem is HEC (Human Elephant Conflict), with an ever-growing population of elephants conflicting with an ever-growing population of humans.

    http://www.african-elephant.org/hec/pdfs/heccombappmen.pdf

    http://www.ccrsl.org/Downloads/Fernando-10-ProblemEles.pdf

    http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/heccapacity/Workshop2009.pdf

    The good news is there’s a simple solution to the elephant-poaching problem, but the bad news is it’s too simple for the white House and USFWS to embrace. It’s not exciting and sexy, like claiming you’re talking armed action to fight poachers in Africa, while you’re really just arresting elderly tourists returning from overseas with ivory trinkets bought in legal Asian markets. But it would work, if only our government wasn’t so hell-bent-for-leather to pass draconian regulations trampling the inherent constitutional rights of the very citizens they are supposed to be serving.

    A massive amount of ivory falls to the African floor every year, simply because elephants don’t live forever. The African elephant has a natural mortality rate of 4% – 7% per year, depending on their location – over the entire African continent it averages 5.5%.

    That amounts to about 25,500 elephants that will die every year without a single one being “poached”. Since a large percentage of those natural deaths occur among older elephants the bodies they leave behind will typically bear large tusks, and that “free” ivory does not rot or biodegrade.

    Official estimates for the amount of this “natural death” ivory range from a very conservative 100+ tons to as much as 700 tons. Again, that is per year, and from elephants that are going to die no matter what humans do. This “natural death” ivory accumulating every year could be more than enough to meet the world market, and the price would be exponentially lower than “black market” ivory. So
    much lower it should eliminate most poaching virtually overnight.

    No matter which side of this debate you are on, this raises three questions that every American citizen should want, perhaps even need to see answered:

    1) With the U.S. deficit at $17.5 Trillion, and growing by $2.75 Billion every day, who will be funding the millions upon millions of dollars need to manage and protect African elephants in African nations so poor they can’t even afford to feed their own children?

    2) What should we do with the hundreds of tons of ivory that fall to the African floor every year worth hundreds of millions of dollars, since it won’t rot and it doesn’t biodegrade?

    3) Why not use the perpetually renewable resource of natural death ivory to end poaching, fund elephant protection and conservation, and feed and employ millions of starving Africans?

    • Colonel Mustard

      “Why not use the perpetually renewable resource of natural death ivory to end poaching, fund elephant protection and conservation, and feed and employ millions of starving Africans?”

      Because that would be realistic, sensible and pragmatic rather than emotive. And we live in an emotive age of juvenile politicians where issues are decided on the basis of emoting approval or disapproval regardless of rights or wrongs.

      • ClausewitzTheMunificent

        Exactly, it seems as though all politicians think that the populace are so stupid, so beneath consideration, that they have to resort to stupid stunts to get their support, and where that might fail, outright bribery (crumbs) will do, while they line their pockets with the real money of course.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I`ve been saying for years that America`s gone mad.

  • Mnestheus

    Ivory is perhaps the only renewable resource known to sequester carbon for as long as fossil fuels- much of the abundant fossil ivoryof Canada and Siberia id found embedded in lignite.

    Green gunsmiths should demand the right to leave trees standing by using it instead of wood to stock their big game rifles.

  • Miquel Alfonso Ramos

    AS much as destroying old pianos because they have Ivory is a complete stupidity and a lack of common sense, you people need to read a little bit more the news.
    I repeat I agree that antic ivory should not be destroyed, for laws enacted in 1990, but last year a low estimate of around 25.000 elephants where poached to convert their tusks into chopsticks in China and South East Asia, Chopsticks and all sorts of stupid things.
    Africa was learning to manage their elephant populations and yes they had some overgrowth probles like in the Kruger National park up to 2010 when the first emergency calls started to appear here and there.
    The presence of a extremely large population of Chinese people in Subsaharian Africa and the growth of the middle class in South East Asia were a convention for the perfect disaster.
    Right now the speed at which the populations are declining is way faster than in the 80ties, they poachers poison lakes, use planes and night googles.
    And what is worst the Western media does not give a crap.
    Also the Rhino population is being push to the border of extinction very fast, initially it was just about traditional Chinese medicine but now asian Yuppies are mixing the powder of the horn to mix with cocaine just for the fun of having the money to do so. China knows exactly the 12 main factory where all these things are happening but corruption and a total lack of response anywhere including the West lets then continue with the killing.
    In just 2 years 6 countries have declared their elephant populations extinct. And since it’s harder to find elephants in countries where there is little control, they are moving to big havens as Botswana, Namibia or Kenya.
    I’m not a tree huger but neither som done that would claim stupid things without not knowing what is going on. South Africa is growing every year its budged to stop the poachers, but they even enter on the National Parks thus they are floated with money to use better poaching techniques.

  • transponder

    American laws can be incredibly stupid. And I say this as a patriot.

  • ophra yerushalmi

    Hi, this is me (Ms.) Ophra Yerushalmi. Surprised to read Alexander Chancellor on my site after twenty years. In the meantime finished my second film (2011) “Liszt’s Dance with the Devil”. Take a look. Regards, Ophra

  • Christa Witvrouwen

    Dear Mr Chancellor, maybe you should have a talk with piano man Billy Joel, he is brave enough to condemn the ivory trade in all its forms. I don’t know who these conservationists are who are saying that the elephant population is growing but that is very far from reality, just this week the biggest bull in Kenya was poached, he had 24/7 protection. Cites has now given a number of 20.000 elephants being killed yearly for their ivory, probably it’s even much higher, if not acted now the species will go extinct in the decade to come. Very well organised poaching syndicates are now involved in killing elephants and ivory is used as blood money for weapons for terrorist groups, rangers are being killed trying to protect the elephants. I think we have come to the point where it’s necessary to take a stand, ivory piano keys or the survival of a species, I applaud the american gouvernment for taking this action, I hope the rest of the world will follow their example.

    • Rafael

      Right on! And we should ban all diamonds also! There is no way to tell the difference between legally mined diamonds and blood diamonds. And what about the human toll of gold mines, particularly the illegal mines whose profits fund terrorism? Why stop at ivory that was legally acquired decades ago? Surrender your diamond ring madam or go to prison!

      • Christa Witvrouwen

        that’s the problem with legal and illegal ivory trade, one is driving the other.

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