China says it will phase out ivory trade in 2017

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(File photo)

HONG KONG (CNN) — China has announced a plan to phase out all ivory processing and trade by the end of 2017, the government said on Friday, a move that conservationists hope will stymie the mass killing -- and threat of extinction -- of African elephants.

The country had already announced plans to ban the ivory trade, but it's now committed itself to a timetable to end the trade, something it said it would do this summer, according to the US State Department.

"China's announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation. The large-scale trade of ivory now faces its twilight years, and the future is brighter for wild elephants, said Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of WWF. "With the US also ending its domestic ivory trade earlier this year, two of the largest ivory markets have taken action that will reverberate around the world."

Before European colonization, scientists believe that Africa may have held as many as 20 million elephants; by 1979 only 1.3 million remained -- and the Great Elephant Census, an ambitious project to count all of Africa's savannah elephants from the sky, revealed this year that things have gotten far worse.

In the seven years between 2007 and 2014, the elephant population plummeted by 30%, or 144,000 animals.

As of July, Africa's savannah is now home to only 352,271 elephants, according to the Great Elephant Census. Overall, including forest elephants, there are thought to be between 400,000 and 500,000 elephants across Africa.

"China's exit from the ivory trade is the greatest single step that could be taken to reduce poaching for elephants," WildAid CEO Peter Knights said in a written statement.

The Chinese State Council's plan to end the ivory trade will be carried out over the course of the year. It will first force a designated group of legal ivory processing factories and business to close by March 31, according to the state-run China Daily.

The plan also involves stringent regulation of legal ivory collection, strengthening enforcement and education and "vigorously" pushing for a transformation of the ivory carving industry, including helping encourage ivory carving masters to find work with museums or in preservation efforts.

The government will no longer allow ivory products to be displayed in real or online markets -- only noncommercial sites, such as museums, will be allowed to display ivory, China Daily says.

A lifeline for elephants?

China is home to the world's largest ivory market, and rising demand has led to the death of 100,000 elephants over a three-year period ending in 2014.

In recent years, China has taken moves to outlaw the ivory trade.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2015 a joint pledge to end the legal and illegal trade of ivory in their respective countries.

Hong Kong, which has been called the "dark heart of the ivory trade," said in January it would phase out the sale of ivory by 2021, but some say that isn't fast enough to stave off extinction.

But some traders, worried that their stocks will immediately become worthless and they will not be compensated, are considering mounting a legal challenge to that move, according to the South China Morning Post.

Importing and exporting ivory across international borders is banned, but licensed ivory sellers are allowed to sell pre-1989 ivory domestically, though a 2015 investigation by a conservation group concluded that some traders appear to be using the legal trade as a cover.

CNN's Wilfred Chan, Tim Schwarz, Pamela Boykoff and David McKenzie contributed to this report

This story was first published on CNN.com "China says it will phase out ivory trade in 2017."