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African elephant
The Great Elephant Census documents a rapid decline in the species. (Great Elephant Census via YouTube)

China’s pledge to shut down commercial trade in ivory within a year comes as welcome news to conservationists who have been fighting for years to save endangered elephants – including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The Chinese government’s announcement on Friday laid out a plan to close domestic trade in elephant ivory by the end of 2017, following up on a commitment made by President Xi Jinping in 2015. The ban will be phased in starting in March, and will apply to physical sales as well as online transactions.

China already has been taking steps to counter the illegal trade, including widely publicized ceremonies during which authorities have crushed down tons of elephant tusks and carved ivory. The country is nevertheless considered the home of the world’s largest ivory market.

Researchers estimate that more than half of Africa’s smuggled ivory ends up in China to be carved into ornaments.

Poaching for the illegal ivory trade is considered a major factor behind an alarming decline in African elephant populations – as documented by the Great Elephant Census, which received more than $7 mlllion in funding from Allen.

The unprecedented census estimated that those populations were shrinking by 8 percent per year. Based on that census as well as other studies, conservationists say there are as few as 450,000 African elephants left. Tens of thousands of the animals are killed every year for their tusks.

In a statement released today, Allen applauded China’s latest move and said he hoped data from the Great Elephant Census contributed to the decision.

“In the end, we can only judge our success by one measure: Can we save elephants and ultimately contribute to their recovery?” Allen said. “My hope is that enough countries will unite to save the elephants, as China has done, before it’s too late.”

In addition to funding the census, Allen’s Vulcan Productions created a Netflix documentary about the ivory trade, titled “The Ivory Game.” Another Vulcan film, “Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale,” tells the story of a baby elephant born into a rescue camp in Botswana.

Conservation activist Hongxiang Huang, whose efforts to end the ivory trade were featured in “The Ivory Game,” said this week’s announcement “was like the best Christmas gift.”

“I always tried to share with people that to save the elephants, China needs to be part of the solution, and we should engage Chinese in the fight,” he said in a statement. “Now I have finally witnessed the turning point: From now on, China will not be the problem, in fact, it could be the solution to this global problem.”

If China follows through fully on its pledge, the focus of the global campaign against the ivory trade is likely to turn to Japan. Ivory is widely used there for traditional name seals known as hankos.

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