Ebony – An Endangered Species

AVMA Noticeboard News and Events Ebony – An Endangered Species

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    The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have the task of monitoring and placing legally enforceable restrictions on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora.

    About ten years ago, pernambuco, the wood used to make violin bows, attracted a CITES Appendix II listing.

    Bow makers worldwide immediately addressed the problem. They formed the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI) and, in partnership with Brazilian government departments and scientific authorities set about ensuring the survival of the species. So successful has the programme been that CITES officials consider it to be a model for other endangered species. IPCI continues to work with the Brazilian government towards the long term conservation of pernambuco.

    CITES attention has now turned to another wood that is universally used in violin making … ebony!

    Ebony is a generic term for the dark, dense hardwoods that come mainly from the genus Diospyros and is to be found in tropical and some temperate zones. For centuries, ebony has been in demand for its lustrous, dense dark wood. Once sought after for fine cabinet making, it is also traditionally used by indigenous wood carvers and, of course, violin and bow makers quickly recognised its special qualities. Ebony is the black wood used to make fingerboards, tuning pegs and tailpieces.

    Last year, 2012, Madagascar listed 104 species of Diospyros (ebony) in Appendix III of CITES, this year, 2013, they propose to upgrade this listing to Appendix II. An Appendix II listing has the potential to make travelling with your instruments difficult, however, protection of the various species under threat is the only sure way to achieve a positive outcome.

    In recognition of the problem, violin makers internationally are endorsing the Madagascan proposal. The AVMA has expressed its support of the proposal to the Australian CITES Management Authority. Its progress through the CITES process is being monitored on our behalf by the Entente Internationale des Maîtres Luthiers et Archetiers d’art (EILA), who are supporting an amendment in the proposal to exclude finished items, i.e. violins and bows.

    Unfortunately, Madagascar is not the only country in which ebony is under threat and so there may be further proposals for Appendix listings in the future. This threat to the violin and bow makers’ crafts, and to musicians being able to travel freely with their instruments, will be a recurring theme for the foreseeable future.

    CITES Appendix listings are not fixed; whilst there’s little chance of an ebony listing being lifted any time soon, there is every possibility that they can be upgraded to a higher level. An Appendix I listing would make international travel with instruments or bows practically impossible so it is imperative that we collectively acknowledge this problem and start to work towards a sustainable future for ebony.

    Violins do not lie at the heart of the problem, our use of ebony is at a sustainable rate. Your fingerboard will long outlast the time it takes an ebony tree to grow from seedling to mature tree so there is no need to feel overly guilty about your ebony use. The main problems lie with the usual ecological changes that accompany human development which include loss of natural habitat due to urban development, land clearing for agriculture and industry, clear-felling to accommodate intensive mono cultures, reduction of wood to charcoal for smelting furnaces, etc. Over time, these massive losses mean that the fewer remaining trees become more valuable and illegal logging then starts to become a profitable criminal activity, further exacerbating the problem.

    If we do nothing, our very modest use of ebony will become a more significant part of the problem, but if we act now, experience has shown that user groups with a vested interest in the continued sustainable use of resources can have an enormous positive input.

    Huge problems tend to have political, administrative, scientific and practical areas that all need to be addressed, any action needs to be carefully and objectively applied if they are to be effective.

    EILA has, for some time, been in consultation with CITES management authorities internationally and have engaged a New York based environmental consultant to follow the Madagascan Appendix II proposal to its conclusion to try to ensure the best outcome for makers and musicians.

    A regeneration project is being developed between the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Madagascan authorities. Hopefully many more such projects will ensue. These require funding, EILA and national violin making organisations around the world continue to contribute to conservation funding requirements, but it is too big a problem for violin makers alone, musicians will also have to be involved in conservation funding efforts if we are to have a successful outcome and makers will very much look forward to working with musicians on some of these important future projects.

    At the time of writing, we don’t know the outcome of the CITES Appendix II Madagascan proposal.

    The Australian Violin Maker’s Association has close ties to EILA and so anyone wanting to follow up on the ebony issue can return to this page for the results of the CITES meeting in late March 2013 and for other related information.

    Anyone with queries regarding these issues can contact us via the AVMA contact form. We will try to respond to your important questions.


    On 14 March 2013, Madagascan ebony (Diospyros spp.) was listed under CITES Appendix II. The listing has an annotation restricting it to logs, sawn wood and veneers.

    Finished objects comprising parts made from ebony are exempt from the CITES restrictions, which means that for the most part, violins or bows with ebony parts can be moved internationally without hindrance.

    Some countries apply stricter restrictions than the CITES appendices and may have domestic policy (see USA Lacey Act) or fiscal policy (for example, the recent confiscations of instruments at German customs) that may make international travel with instruments or bows problematical.

    Travellers are advised to check the various requirements of the countries to be visited as part of their travel plans before leaving Australia.

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