Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bagpipes Seizure by U.S. Customs May Spur Police Involvement in Ivory Ban Debate

This week’s seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of two teenagers’ vintage bagpipes may serve to increase public opposition against the current blanket ban on the movement and trade of ivory. This time among police officers.

Pipes | Drums reported the confiscation of the teens’ heirloom bagpipes, writing that the 17 year olds from Massachusetts possessed CITES permits (permits under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) for the ivory that ornamented their 1936 and 1958 pipes. The pair crossed into Canada for a competition, only to have federal customs officials take away their musical instruments at the Vermont-Canada border on the way back.

The story of the bagpipe seizure has now spread among police officers on social media because many officers throughout the country are part of police associations' pipe and drum corps. While federal officials eventually returned the bagpipes to the teens, a local news report intimated that the return may only have come in response to intervention by a U.S. senator's office. 


Elephant poaching is a transnational crime that slaughters thousands of elephants each year. In fact, monitoring the Killing of Elephants (MIKE) reported that 22,000 were killed illegally in Africa in 2012. That devastation to endangered wildlife is why the United States and the international community strongly support measures to combat ivory trafficking.

But the unilateral administrative ban on the transfer of ivory, promulgated by the White House in February, remains an immoderate response that serves only to build public dissatisfaction since the ban covers more than just illegal modern-day ivory. The ban essentially forbids the complete commercial sale of elephant ivory objects and restricts many imports and exports regardless of their age or legal acquisition. More importantly, it has instantly turned many innocent owners of old ivory into current possessors of contraband when the focus of domestic enforcement should be on transnational smuggling networks, dealers and collectors who operate illegally, and the muddied ivory market with its links to the opaque antiquities market.

The Obama administration recently relaxed the ban for the benefit of museums and holders of antiques, but only after pressure had been exerted by interest groups. State, county, and local police officers may be the next group of citizens to pressure the White House.

In the meantime, if police pipers or others plan to travel with bagpipes that have any amount of ivory in them, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has a permit process that must be followed. It is described on the agency’s web site.

Photo credit: D. Carlton

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post without the express written consent of CHL is prohibited.