Image: AP

In what is being hailed a major victory for elephant conservation, China announced today that it will ban all commercial ivory trading by the end of 2017.

Domestic ivory markets are contributing to the rapid demise of Africa’s elephant population, which has shrunk by a third over the past seven years, according to a recent census. This year, both the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species called for domestic ivory markets around the world to be shut down for good.

China is the world’s largest ivory market, with an estimated 70 percent of all ivory trade taking place within its borders where it can fetch as much as $2,400 per pound. Last year, China agreed for the first time to start phasing out the domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products. Now, it seems to be making good on that promise.

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Included in today’s announcement from the governing State Council were details on how China plans to shut down its ivory market. All commercial sales of elephant ivory, both physical and online, will be banned by the end of March, and registered traders will be phased out by the end of the year. Ivory carving masters will be encouraged to move into museum work.

“Setting such an aggressive timeline to close—once and for all—the largest domestic ivory market in the world is globally significant,” Elly Pepper, deputy director of wildlife trade for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the BBC. “It’s a game changer and could be the pivotal turning point that brings elephants back from the brink of extinction.”

“Could” is an operative word here. According to a ten-month undercover investigation by the nonprofit Elephant Action League, China’s legal ivory market is in many ways a cover for an illegal market some 25 times larger. Still, the ban at least signals that China’s leadership is taking the issue seriously, and that trading dead elephant tusk is about to get much harder.

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[BBC, National Geographic]