Proposed ban on ivory sale links old pianos, terrorism

AP News
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Posted: Apr 23, 2015 6:15 PM

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A debate in Vermont over a proposed ban on the sale of ivory and rhinoceros horns in the small New England state is bringing home much wider issues of international terrorism and animal extinction.

The latest concern among supporters of the proposed ban is a move to insert exemptions in the state legislation for old pianos and other antiques. Supporters got to air their concerns at a legislative hearing Thursday that featured talk of grandma's piano, the slaughter and near extinction of African elephants, and terrorism.

New York passed a crackdown on ivory sales last year, and New Jersey an outright ban. Legislation is pending in Vermont and seven other states, said Joanne Bourbeau, Northeast regional director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Ashley McAvey, an activist from Shelburne who is heading efforts to get a ban passed in Vermont and asked lawmakers to bring the ban bill, said she would like to see legislation similar to the law in New Jersey. She told the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee that permitting any sales of the materials will encourage an international market that is funding terrorist groups and leading to the likely extinction of African elephants.

"Ivory is ivory is ivory is ivory is ivory," she said.

Still, Rep. David Deen, the committee chairman, was less certain of the nexus. "People are having trouble connecting their grandmother's piano with terrorism," he said.

Consideration of the bill comes at a time of increasing concern about illegal poaching of elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns and other wildlife as a funding source for terrorist groups. The U.S. House Committee on Financial Services heard testimony Wednesday in Washington that the group Al-Shabaab has been able to raise as much as $600,000 a month from the sale of elephant tusks, a violation of international law. Four gunmen from the Somali extremist group killed 148 people earlier this month at a college in Garissa, Kenya.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences reported last year that 40,000 African elephants were killed in 2011 alone.

"It is the demand for ivory and rhino horn that is driving the elephant and rhino massacre," Bourbeau said in previous testimony before Vermont lawmakers. "Most of the demand for ivory is in China, where the ivory carving tradition dates back to prehistoric times."

McAvey said that while the U.S. has banned the importation of new ivory since 1976, the country ranks second behind China as an importer. Under international criticism, China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports last month.

The committee also heard from Cameron Wood of the Legislative Council, who walked lawmakers through changes to the bill that would allow exemptions for ivory legally purchased before the 1970s.

And antiques and piano dealers are fighting back.

"The idea, however, of limiting possession and sale of what was once a legal and accepted commodity and destroying and/or banning the sale of antique items seems like our government overstepping its bounds," Greg Hamilton, president of the Vermont Antiques Dealers Association, wrote in an email to lawmakers.

Dale Howe, co-owner of Frederick Johnson Pianos in White River Junction, took a view similar Thursday to the committee chairman's. "I don't know how a 50-year-old piano has any effect on what's happening today," he said in an interview.