African blackwood: New Protection Rule Exemption Brings Relief for Bagpipemakers

cites-logoOn January 2 the African blackwood tree will be added to the protected species list of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This means that all trade in the wood, from the tree dalbergia melanoxylon, will be controlled and certified at a cost to the grower and the importer.

CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. All import, export, re-export of species of flora and fauna covered by the Convention has to be authorised through a licensing system. Each country which is party to the Convention (the UK is one) must designate one or more authority to take charge of administering that licensing system and one or more scientific authority to advise them.

The good news for bagpipemakers is that their instruments should be exempted under a finished goods option. Therefore provided they can show that their raw material was sourced from a properly licenced importer they should have no fear of legislation or of surcharges every time they post out a wooden practice chanter. However they may have to alter packaging to show that the wood is African blackwood and also add the initials CAR, meaning carved, indicating that it is a finished product.

Pipers will have encountered CITES before when a few years ago they announced a ban on the trading of elephant ivory. Those wishing to travel with ivory pipes had the option of obtaining a whole sheath of paperwork to show they were of pre-ban manufacture and thus exempted, or risk having them impounded by customs officers at airports. Most opted to simply stop travelling with these pipes buying non-ivory sets instead.

Species of plants and animals covered by CITES are listed in three appendices, according to the degree of protection they need. Appendix I includes those threatened with extinction – trade is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II, which will now include African blackwood (also known as mpingo and grenadilla), is for species in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid overuse and extinction.

africanblackwood
The African blackwood tree dalbergia melanoxylon
African blackwood is used by instrument makers the world over, not only for bagpipes but for oboes, clarinets and other orchestral woodwind instruments. The main supply countries are Tanzania and Mozambique. Provided the wood is taken from sustainable forests, pipemakers, who form a small proportion of the overall woodwind instrument manufacturing industry, should be guaranteed continuity of supply for the foreseeable future.
But these trees can take 60 years to come to a reasonable size suitable for harvesting, and poaching is already threatening their existence, hence the CITES, action. Of the tree Wikipedia says: ‘The dense, lustrous wood ranges from reddish to pure black. It is generally cut into small billets or logs with its sharply demarcated bright yellow-white sapwood left on to assist in the slow drying so as to prevent cracks developing.

‘Good quality ‘A’ grade African blackwood commands high prices on the commercial timber market. The tonal qualities of African blackwood are particularly valued when used in woodwind instruments, principally clarinets, oboes, transverse flutes, piccolos, Highland pipes, and Northumbrian pipes. The timber is used mainly because of its machinability and dimensional stability.

‘Furniture makers from the time of the Egyptians have valued this timber. A story states that it has even been used as ballast in trading ships and that some enterprising Northumbrian pipe makers used old discarded blackwood ballast to great effect. German knife companies….sell knives with blackwood handles due to the wood’s moisture repellent qualities.

‘Due to overuse, the mpingo tree is severely threatened in Kenya and is needing attention in Tanzania and Mozambique. The trees are being harvested at an unsustainable rate, partly because of illegal smuggling of the wood into Kenya, but also because the tree takes upwards of 60 years to mature. Small growers in Naples, Florida, have been successful in growing African blackwood there. Growth habit in Florida yields taller, larger trees, and the rich soil combined with ample nutrients and long growing season yields timber of superior quality at more sustainable rates. Hopefully, ventures like this will be able to take strain off African reserves and allow this timber to be used in the future.’