Britain is to ban all sales of ivory which are not backed by proof that the item is over 70 years old.
Although it is already illegal to sell ivory from elephants killed after 1947, a loophole allows dealers to claim items are antique without providing documentary evidence of their age.
The initiative, which comes ahead of a global meeting where countries will vote on shutting down domestic ivory markets to safeguard the future of elephants, was welcomed by conservationists and campaigners.
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Prince William, a patron of the wildlife charity Tusk, is expected to endorse the move on Thursday when he speaks on the illegal ivory trade alongside Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary. Earlier this week he backed a ban on domestic ivory sales.
Ivory objects are still widely sold in Britain but few questions are asked of its provenance, allowing tonnes of ivory from recently killed elephants to be traded. A recent report by the NGO Traffic found 3,200 pieces on sale.
When the new initiative is in place, possibly within months, it is expected that all ivory offered for sale will be destroyed or confiscated if there is no documentary proof of its age.
Only 425,000 African elephants remain in the wild and every year about 33,000 are slaughtered for their ivory, leading to fears that the African elephant is close to extinction.
Most ivory is shipped to the US and China but legal ivory markets, including in the UK and most of Europe, are said to provide cover for the illegal trade, say wildlife groups, including WildAid, Stop Ivory, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
“The reality is that while international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, many domestic markets remain open, including most of Europe. This is despite an average 85% of people surveyed wanting it banned,” said Professor Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the ZSL.
“Maintaining domestic ivory markets helps fuel the illegal killing of thousands of elephants. The two largest markets for ivory, China and the US, have already announced a near total ban of trade in ivory. If the UK does not announce a ban, it could become one of the largest ivory markets in the world. This would be both embarrassing and irresponsible.”
Andrew Harmon, WildAid director of communications, said: “The truth is simple – ‘legal’ ivory only provides a cover for smuggling, corruption and the horrific slaughter of elephants. The upcoming CITES Conference of Parties is a critical moment for the world to finally accept fact over fiction.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the rules in Britain were among the strictest in the world: “We know there is more to be done and we want to work with traders to strengthen documentary proof on the age of items and ensure greater confidence that antique items are genuine.”