Exemptions needed for overly broad ivory ban


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

As I gaze at my computer mouse pad, a rubbery version of Monet’s Water Lilies, I keep seeing the number 54. As in million. As in how much an anonymous American just paid for the original, painted in 1906.

Of course, that’s far below the record high price for a Monet — $80.4 million in 2008 for the 1919 painting titled Pool of Water Lilies. Now that was a painting. At least it’s pretty cool on my wall calendar.

As art prices keep soaring, we are lucky to live in a time that gives us access to cheap images of famous works of art.

But woe to you if the art you like includes ivory. Apparently, a century-old cameo and an ancient piano with ivory keys I cherish are encouraging the poaching of African and Asian elephants. Of course, that makes me feel terrible. Who doesn’t love elephants?

But I can’t fathom the Obama administration’s thinking that almost all sales of anything with ivory in it should be banned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans such a ban to try to make ivory worthless so evil poachers will stop killing elephants.

At a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular affairs, experts on musical instruments, hunting, conservation and antiques said, in effect, the government is nuts. The policy, they said, would “wreak havoc on law-abiding citizens without stopping poaching.” Sales of items with ivory, from teapots to violins, would be restricted without substantial documentation.

Poaching is now the fifth largest organized criminal trafficking activity after such things as arms, drugs and humans. Half of the world’s elephants reportedly have been killed in the last decade. Last year 20,000 elephants were killed for ivory.

Robert G. Dreher, associate director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, insists “it is precisely the trade in such objects” as musical instruments, vintage weapons, canes, antiques, jewelry and art objects “that is killing wildlife.” Although it has been illegal to import ivory into the United States since 1989, enforcement has weakened.

But auctioneer Matthew Quinn says his ivory collectors are mainly elderly and those who want to sell rarely have sufficient documentation to meet proposed requirements.

Arian Sweets, a curator of the National Music Museum, says museums could not buy vintage instruments with old ivory under the ban and potential donors would get no IRS deductions if ivory becomes worthless. Concert pianists could not buy pianos with ivory, nor could they get insurance to transport their instruments, she said.

Scott O’Grady, who has been on five African safaris, says if elephant hunting is effectively banned for U.S. citizens, as is the plan, thousands of dollars for anti-poaching rangers would dry up.

Former Texas congressman Jack Fields says diplomacy in the past stopped 40 percent of ivory poaching used for Japanese hand stamps and Chinese art and the price of ivory went from one hundred dollars a pound to virtually nothing.

Fields insisted the proposed ban is not the issue; effectively going after poacher is a better alternative. “Follow the money. Shine the spotlight on the bad actors.”

David Hayes, vice chair of the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, said the 1989 international ban made poaching unprofitable. He said it increased as Asia’s middle class expanded and demanded ivory objects while organized crime moved in to supply them.

He is correct that the government has yet to make its case to ban virtually all sales of ivory objects. Antique dealers, musicians and collectors must be exempt.

Once, the government decided to dry up the drug traffic by putting drug users in jail; we know how well that worked.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should rewrite its plan to permit legitimate trading and sales.

And, no, I do not have a cameo or ancient piano for sale let alone a Monet.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.

©2014 McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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