MN Orchestra travels to Cuba: Is that elephant ivory or mastodon?

May 22, 2015

ViolinOn Friday, May 15th, the Minnesota Orchestra became the first American orchestra to play a major orchestral concert in Cuba since President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations. This historic event was met with much enthusiasm and excitement, but also concern. If the fears of Communist world domination and nuclear fallout have begun the slow fade into history then what is left to cause such trepidation?

Custom Officers of the United States of America. Why? The best professional classical musicians use instruments that are made out exquisite materials. In a lot of cases, these instruments are antique, having been crafted decades and even centuries ago. Many of these instruments are made with materials that come from the world’s most endangered species; including ivory, tortoiseshell, and Brazilian rosewood. Without the proper documentation showing that these instruments were manufactured before the enactment of laws that ban the use of these materials, the instruments risk seizure by U.S. custom officials.

Of course, musicians have worried about this since the enactment of endangered species laws; however concern is amplified due to a recent step-up in combating this illegal trade. In an Executive Order dated July 1, 2013, President Obama announced that the administration would increase its enforcement of domestic efforts to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade. The driving force of this effort is the implementation of the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking which was unveiled this February. A major component of this plan is tougher border control and inspection. In order to ensure the instruments make it back, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Operations Manager, Mele Williams, collected documentation for all of the musician’s instruments. In some cases this meant showing the lineage of the instruments, including a stringed instrument which dates back to 1710. For others, it was proof that materials were not from endangered species. For example, proving that bow tips are not made of elephant ivory, but rather from mastodon tusks (as mastodons became extinct long before the enactment of endangered species laws).

The United States’ current effort against wildlife trafficking is not a new phenomenon, but rather the most recent step in the history of endangered species protection. In 1973, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) into law. This came just months after the members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) met in Washington, D.C. to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). CITES sets forth the principle that “peoples and States are and should be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora,” and “that international co-operation is essential for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade.” The ESA codifies this convention into U.S. law, making it a powerful instrument to fight species extinction from a variety of angles. The ESA has been strengthened by legal victories and tougher enforcement and endangered species protection has continued to develop.

The Minnesota Orchestra, along with the musicians’ instruments, returned from Cuba on Sunday after series of concerts and workshops that were praised by national and international press. The concert was lauded as a big step towards bridging American and Cuban cultures. This historic trip illustrates an interesting juxtaposition of two policies from the last decade. On one side, policies of isolation and embargo can die away while on the other, policies of protection and cooperation can continue to gain momentum.