BEIJING — China promised Friday to close down its domestic ivory trade completely by the end of 2017, a decision greeted by environmentalists as offering real hope to curb a poaching crisis that is wiping out tens of thousands of elephants across Africa.
The National Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group, said the news “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began.”
In a statement released by its governing State Council, China announced it would “cease part of ivory processing and sales” by the end of March, and cease both completely by Dec. 31, 2017.
It was a massive step for a country that had previously argued that ivory carving was part of its national cultural heritage, and where intricately carved ivory items had become both a status symbol and a popular gift to grease the wheels of government and business.
But the government was moved to act not just by international pressure but also by changing attitudes among ordinary Chinese people toward the ivory trade. Celebrities such as former NBA basketball star Yao Ming have led campaigns to “stop the buying” of ivory — and simply to educate people that elephants had to die for the ivory to be taken.
There was also a sense that China’s key role in the illicit ivory trade — estimated to be worth around $10 billion a year and run by international criminal networks and African rebel groups — was damaging its image in Africa.
After the market is closed down, the Chinese Ministry of Culture will help ivory sector employees transition to other jobs, for example encouraging “master carvers” to work in museums to help repair and maintain significant ivory works of art, the statement said.
Peter Knights, chief executive of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group at the forefront of efforts to change attitudes in China toward the ivory trade, called it the “best possible news for Africa’s elephants” and congratulated President Xi Jinping for his leadership on the issue.
Although poaching may have peaked a few years ago, around 20,000 African elephants continue to be killed for their tusks every year, experts say, largely to fuel demand for ivory from Asia, and particularly China.
Africa’s elephant population has dwindled from about 1.2 million 35 years ago to between 400,000 and 500,000 now. Central African forest elephants could be extinct within the next decade if current trends continue, while Tanzania’s elephant population fell by 60 percent between 2009 and 2014, census data showed.
But even if a ban is enforced in China, some experts warn that the trade could shift across the border into neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Burma, where large markets flourish selling endangered wildlife products to Chinese consumers. There is also a danger of traders passing off elephant ivory as legal mammoth ivory.
Nevertheless, a clear signal from the Chinese government is seen as going a long way toward making ivory as unfashionable here as it is in the West.
China retains a small stock of legal ivory purchased in 2008, when international trade in it was allowed. The state has been gradually supplying that ivory to carving workshops and selling it domestically.
But this legal business, experts say, has provided cover for a vast underground illegal trade that has fueled a poaching crisis around Africa.
The announcement follows a pledge by Xi and President Obama in September 2014 to end the domestic trade in ivory in their respective countries. Hong Kong, another major hub for ivory smuggling, announced last week that it would raise maximum penalties for wildlife crime to 10 years and phase out its own trade in ivory by the end of 2021 — although pressure may now mount for it to move more quickly.
In January 2014, China signaled how official attitudes were changing by staging a ceremony to crush six tons of tusks and carved ivory ornaments that had been seized in anti-trafficking operations.
The United States has largely closed its own ivory market by banning trade at the federal level and in several states, but experts said it still needs to do more in terms of enforcement.
The last bastion of the trade is now Japan, said Knights of WildAid. He urged global opponents of the trade to shift their attention there.