The year was 1862. Abraham Lincoln was in the White House. “Taps” was first sounded as a lights-out bugle call. And Steinway & Sons was building its first upright pianos in New York.
The space-saving design would help change the cultural face of America. After the Civil War, many middle-class families installed them in their parlors. The ability to play the piano was thought to be nearly as important to the marriage potential of single ladies as their skill in cooking and sewing, signaling a young woman’s gentility and culture.
The keys on those pianos were all fashioned from the ivory of African elephants. And that is why one of these uprights, the oldest one known to survive, in fact, is stuck in Japan.
The director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued an order prohibiting the commercial importation of all African elephant ivory into the United States. (Commercial imports had been allowed in some instances, including for certain antiques.)
The Obama administration is also planning to implement additional rules that will prohibit, with narrow exceptions, both the export of African elephant ivory and its unfettered trade within the United States.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that these new rules will help stop the slaughter of elephants. But we believe that unless demand for ivory in Asia is reduced — through aggressive education programs there, tougher enforcement against the illegal ivory trade and the creation of a legal raw ivory market — these new American regulations will merely cause the price to balloon and the black market to flourish, pushing up the profit potential of continued poaching.
In short, these new rules proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service may well end up doing more harm than good to the African elephant.
What these regulations will also do is make the import, export and interstate sale of almost any object with African elephant ivory virtually impossible. Anyone who owns any antique African elephant ivory — whether it is an Edwardian bracelet inherited from a grandmother or an ivory-handled Georgian silver tea set owned by an antiques dealer — will be unable to ship or sell it without unimpeachable documentation that proves it is at least 100 years old, has not been repaired or modified with elephant ivory since 1973, and that it arrived in the United States through one of 13 ports of entry.
The story of the Steinway underscores the complexity, rigidity and absurdity of these rules. The piano was salvaged years ago by Ben Treuhaft, a professional piano technician. When his wife took an academic job in Japan, he shipped the piano along with their other household possessions to Tokyo. They moved to Scotland after the Fukushima nuclear accident three years ago, leaving the piano in storage in Japan to be shipped later. Now Mr. Treuhaft is ready to return the piano to the United States and place it in the hands of a friend who planned to display it at her piano shop.
But the piano remains in Japan. It lacks the paperwork necessary to clear customs in the United States because Mr. Treuhaft failed, when he shipped the piano abroad, to obtain the required export permit identifying the ivory keys and the piano’s provenance. In the past, the government might have exercised some discretion over Mr. Treuhaft’s oversight. But no more. Moreover, to meet the personal-use exception for an import, the piano would have to be shipped back as part of a household move, and he wants to send it to a friend.
So the piano that Steinway says is its oldest known upright is stuck in Japan.
Of course, Mr. Treuhaft is not the only one who is or will be hurt or inconvenienced by this draconian order from the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the new rules that the administration seeks to impose. Musicians already complain of a burdensome process and monthslong delays in securing permits to take their instruments containing ivory abroad. And collectors, gun owners and antiques dealers say they have been blindsided by the proposed rules, which will effectively render their African elephant ivory pieces worthless unless they can meet the extremely difficult standards necessary to sell them.
We suggest a different approach. We should encourage China, where much of the poached ivory ends up, to start a detailed public education campaign that underscores the damage done to elephant populations by the illegal trade in ivory. We also need more aggressive enforcement of anti-poaching efforts in Africa. And we should figure out a way to manage the trade in raw ivory to protect elephants. For instance, several years ago, ivory stockpiles owned by several African countries were sold in a series of United Nations-approved auctions in an effort to undercut illegal ivory trafficking. The proceeds went to elephant conservation efforts. This is a better approach than destroying these stockpiles, as the United States did last fall to six tons of ivory.
Leaving Mr. Treuhaft’s piano in Japan will not save African elephants. But it will further endanger them and diminish the lives of those who recognize and value the role of ivory in history and culture.
Godfrey Harris directs the Political Action Network of the International Ivory Society, and Daniel Stiles is a wildlife trade consultant.