Delegates attending a global biodiversity conference in Bangkok this week are debating a U.S. proposal to streamline international customs checks for travelers with musical instruments that legally contain endangered wildlife products like exotic hardwoods, ivory or tortoise shell.
The goal is not to burden musicians, but to make foreign travel easier by doing away with cumbersome import and export permits and ensuring legal instruments aren't confiscated, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, who is leading Washington's delegation to the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Thailand's capital, Bangkok.
The proposal is expected to be voted on as early as Friday. If approved, travelers would be able to carry a "musical instrument passport" valid for three years.
The CITES framework was signed in 1973 to ensure the survival of the world's flora and fauna by regulating international trade in threatened species. About 35,000 species are presently protected.
Ashe said he was not aware of any cases of international customs agents seizing instruments, and if it has happened, it's been extremely rare. But concern over the issue within the U.S. music industry rose sharply in 2011, when federal agents raided the factories and offices of Gibson Guitar to seize what they said was illegal ebony
After the raids, "people started raising serious questions about their instruments," Ashe told The Associated Press in an interview in Bangkok this week. "They said, 'If my guitar contains Brazilian rosewood ... if my violin bow is made of exotic hardwood, is it going to be taken away from me when I travel?'"
Violin bows are a major concern. Some are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the last thing their owners want is to risk having them confiscated.
"What we want to do is make sure people can comply with the law, and do so easily," Ashe said. "So we came up with this idea of the musical instrument passport that would allow people to have one document to move through multiple countries."
Ashe said his department had consulted with musicians' organizations including the International Music Products Association. That group, along with the League of American Orchestras, has called for CITES to protect the ability of musicians to travel abroad with their instruments and appealed for exemptions for those traveling with instruments that can be declared as personal effects.
At present, musicians whose instruments contain internationally regulated wildlife products—many of them built long before CITES was established—are supposed to get export permits or certifications from every country they visit.
"Understanding how to navigate the current international and domestic permit requirements—which vary from country to country—is very complicated and confusing," said Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras.
"Streamlining the permit process through a passport of some kind could be quite helpful, but it is essential that a passport be voluntary, and take into account the time, expense, and practical realities of traveling with instruments," Noonan said. "It is key that steps are taken ... to educate the music community about how to navigate the permit rules—both those existing CITES requirements, and the varying domestic endangered species permit rules for each country."
In the U.S., the passport-like documents would be issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service and could be obtained by mail, Ashe said. They would be issued by the relevant authority in other nations.
The passport issue is one of 70 proposals under discussion at the CITES conference, which began Sunday and lasts two weeks. Most of the proposals will determine whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection for various species, including polar bears, sharks, rays and timber.