|© REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo. A worker crafts an ivory product from government registered ivory tusk inside a factory in Hong Kong|
The State Council said in a notice a complete ban would be enforced by Dec. 31, 2017. A first batch of factories and shops will need to close and hand in their licenses by March 31, 2017.
Conservation groups applauded the ban, with WildAid's wildlife campaigner Alex Hofford calling it "the biggest and best conservation news of 2016".
Environmentalists say poached ivory can be disguised as legal as long as trade is allowed in licensed outlets on the high street and online.
Poaching is a major factor contributing to the rapid decline in the numbers of African elephants, with about 20,000 slaughtered every year, according to the WWF.
It says about 415,000 African elephants remain today, compared with the 3 to 5 million in the early 20th century. The animal is officially listed as a vulnerable species.
People with ivory products previously obtained through legal means can apply for certification and continue to display them in exhibitions and museums, the government announcement said.
The auction of legally obtained ivory antiques, under "strict supervision", will also be allowed after obtaining authorization. The government will also crack down on law enforcement and boost education, it added.
WWF Hong Kong's Senior Wildlife Crime Officer Cheryl Lo said the bold timeline "shows determination to help save Africa's elephants from extinction".
"A ban clearly requires strong enforcement and support from the government to be most effective. But together with China's announcement, now that three of the world’s largest domestic ivory markets, that is China, Hong Kong and the U.S., are being phased out," Lo said in a statement.
The United States enacted a near-total ban on commercial trade in ivory from African elephants in June.
Campaigners are urging the Hong Kong government to speed up its plan of phasing out the local ivory trade by the end of 2021.
The former British colony, now Chinese-ruled but governed by different laws under a "one country, two systems" arrangement, allows trade of "pre-convention ivory", or ivory products acquired before 1975.
The financial center also remains an important transit and consumption hub for illegal ivory to China and the rest of Asia.
Chinese ivory traders have also tried to pre-empt the move, WildAid's Hofford said, with some carvers setting up shops in Laos and Myanmar and other traders moving their products "offshore" to places such as Hong Kong.
China Plans To Ban Domestic Ivory Trade By 2018
China announced Friday that the country plans to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.
The four-step plan will progress incrementally, with a halt to commercial ivory processing and sales by March 31. The rest of the legal trade will be banned by Dec. 31.
According to a translation of the announcement by the Natural Resources Defense Council, China will help to transition workers in the ivory industry ― including ivory carvers and artisans ― into other fields, such as museum restoration of ivory artifacts.
China also pledged to step up law enforcement efforts to shut down the illegal trade, including a crackdown on ivory smuggling both in physical markets and online.
In a release hailing the announcement, Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program Executive Director Aili Kang called the move a “game changer for Africa’s elephants.”
“This is great news that will shut down the world’s largest market for elephant ivory,” she said.
In the past, China’s legal ivory market has acted as a laundering tool for its illegal counterpart. A January 2016 National Geographic report estimated China’s legal ivory stockpile to be around 40 metric tons, and its illegal stocks, which are often obscured by the legal trade, to be about 25 times larger.
“Closing the world’s largest legal ivory market will deter people in China and beyond from buying ivory and make it harder for ivory traffickers to sell their illegal stocks,” Lo Sze Ping, CEO of WWF-China, said in a release.
The Hong Kong, Japan and the United States are also among the world’s largest domestic ivory markets.
The United States enacted a near-total ban on the sale of ivory in July 2016. Hong Kong pledged last week to scrap its ivory trade by 2021.
China Bans Its Ivory Trade, Moving Against Elephant Poaching
China announced on Friday that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa.
The decision by China follows years of growing international and domestic pressure and gives wildlife protection advocates hope that the threatened extinction of certain elephant populations in Africa can be averted.
“China’s announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation,” Carter Roberts, the president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a written statement. “With the United States also ending its domestic ivory trade earlier this year, two of the largest ivory markets have taken action that will reverberate around the world.”
According to some estimates, more than 100,000 elephants have been wiped out in Africa over the past 10 years in a ruthless scramble for ivory driven by Chinese demand. Some Chinese investors call ivory “white gold,” while carvers and collectors call it the “organic gemstone.”
THE PRICE OF IVORY
An Illicit Trail of African Ivory to China MARCH 1, 2013
Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is based in New York, wrote that China’s announcement “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began.”
Wildlife advocates have said for years that the most important step in putting poachers out of business would be shutting down the ivory industry in China.
The advocates have promoted long-running public campaigns to shame China and raise questions about its global responsibilities, at a time when China has been assuming a higher profile on the world stage. But the success of the new policy depends on how strictly it is enforced.