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Last week the Chinese government announced a plan to phase out the trade and processing of ivory by the end of 2017. In China, the world’s largest market for ivory, prices per kilo (2.2 pounds) can reach £890 or $1100.

A Chinese government statement last week (29 December) set out four phases to ending the country’s ivory trade, blamed for the slaughter of thousands of elephants every year.

Phase 3 involves the “legitimate collection of ivory and products” which would now be subject to “strict management,” the Chinese government said.

Without an explicit reference to the word 'antique,' the statement said that ivory objects can continue to be auctioned if they are identified and licensed as “ivory relics” by professional accreditation bodies.

Phase 1 of the government’s plan is to end the sale and processing of modern ivory, involving the closure of 34 processing factories and 143 trade venues, by 31 March.

Trade in 'ivory relics'

UK dealers applauded the identification of trade in "ivory relics" as being separate to the country’s demand for modern ivory.  

“I welcome the Chinese government's clear acknowledgment, in their official release, that makes specific reference to the 'management of the legitimate collection of ivory … identified by professional accreditation bodies [so that it may fulfil] its cultural value,’" said Martin Levy of dealers H Blairman & Sons.

China’s reference to the “legitimate collection of ivory” comes after claims in a recent BBC documentary that the desire in China for modern ivory also fuels demand for antique ivory.

China has been a signatory to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) since 1981, now a club of 183 countries. 

Levy, who has written extensively on why antique ivory art should be exempt from bans, echoed animal rights campaigners in welcoming the move as a major milestone in the fight against modern poaching.

"I join with all those who have been campaigning so effectively to draw attention to the plight of endangered elephant herds in some parts of Africa, in applauding the Chinese government for this significant step taken to stamp out the illicit trade in poached ivory,” Levy said.

ATG's Seminar on CITES on 19 January has some remaining delegate places. See here to book.