China shuts some ivory factories, Hong Kong seen as a loophole

HONG KONG, March 31 (Reuters) - China, the world's largest importer and end user of elephant ivory tusks, is shutting a third of its ivory factories and retail stores on Friday, the first major step ahead of a formal ban on ivory sales by the end of the year.

China will shut 67 carving factories and stores with the remaining 105 outlets to be shut before the end of the year, according to documents released by China's Forestry Administration.

The high-profile move has been hailed by activists, but they caution that Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, remains a prime obstacle in eradicating the illegal elephant poaching trade.

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China announces ban on ivory sales
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China announces ban on ivory sales
A man checks a tusk at an ivory workshop in Beijing, China, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A worker crafts an ivory product from government registered ivory tusk inside a factory in Hong Kong, China June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD PACKAGE �SEARCH �USINESS WEEK AHEAD 5 SEPTEMBER�FOR ALL IMAGES
Ivory tusks with government registered labels are seen inside a factory in Hong Kong, China June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
A worker crafts an ivory product from government registered ivory tusk inside a factory in Hong Kong, China June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Ivory products from government registered ivory tusk are seen inside a factory in Hong Kong, China June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
A half-finished ivory product from government registered ivory tusk is seen inside a factory in Hong Kong, China June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Products from mammoth tusks are displayed on a shelf inside a carving and jewellery factory in Hong Kong, China October 23, 2015. Hong Kong is one of the largest ivory smuggling hubs in the world, with 8 tonnes of smuggled ivory seized in 2013 alone, according to the WWF. The Chinese territory has outlawed the import and export of African elephant tusks since the ban took effect in 1990, but shops are allowed to sell ivory products acquired before the ban. The trade of tusks from extinct mammoth is unregulated. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
A worker put beads made from mammoth tusks into plastic bags, beside another worker eating lunch inside a carving and jewellery factory in Hong Kong, China October 23, 2015. Hong Kong is one of the largest ivory smuggling hubs in the world, with 8 tonnes of smuggled ivory seized in 2013 alone, according to the WWF. The Chinese territory has outlawed the import and export of African elephant tusks since the ban took effect in 1990, but shops are allowed to sell ivory products acquired before the ban. The trade of tusks from extinct mammoth is unregulated. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Beads made from mammoth tusks are seen inside a carving and jewellery factory in Hong Kong, China October 23, 2015. Hong Kong is one of the largest ivory smuggling hubs in the world, with 8 tonnes of smuggled ivory seized in 2013 alone, according to the WWF. The Chinese territory has outlawed the import and export of African elephant tusks since the ban took effect in 1990, but shops are allowed to sell ivory products acquired before the ban. The trade of tusks from extinct mammoth is unregulated. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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The former British colony, which has the largest retail market for ivory and has traded it for more than 150 years, is a prime transit and consumption hub with more than 90 percent of consumers from mainland China.

Hong Kong set a time table for a ban on ivory trading last year with a phase-out time of five years. Lawmakers met this week to discuss the ban but have yet to decide on details and whether to shorten the phase-out process.

Rights groups say a five-year horizon is too long and the problem of laundering ivory will become far more rampant before a total ban is in place.

WildAid, a wildlife non-government organization, estimates up to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year. It said markets like Hong Kong had provided "laundering mechanisms for poached ivory and perpetuated the demand."

While the price of ivory has fallen by almost two thirds in the last three years, according to a report by Save the Elephants, the danger from poaching remains acute.

RELATED: Kenya burns confiscated ivory

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Kenya burns confiscated ivory
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Kenya burns confiscated ivory
Fire burns part of an estimated 105 tonnes of ivory and a tonne of rhino horn confiscated from smugglers and poachers at the Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola/File Photo
A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger stacks elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director General Kitili Mbathi and Winnie Kiiru, Country director of Stop Ivory, stack an elephant tusk, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya??
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers stack elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya?
A Kenya Wildlife Services ranger guards the burning of an estimated 105 tonnes of Elephant tusks confiscated ivory from smugglers and poachers at the Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers stack elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A traditional Maasai tribesman holds an elephant tusk, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A contractor carries an elephant tusk, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, to a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, are stacked onto pyres at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers stack elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya?
A contractor carries an elephant tusk, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, to a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger walks past a burning part of an estimated 105 tonnes of ivory and a tonne of rhino horn confiscated from smugglers and poachers at the Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers stack elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A contractor carries elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, to a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger arranges elephant tusks inside a shipping container at their headquarters as part of an estimated 106 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Contractors carry elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, to a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya?
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers carry elephant tusks at their headquarters as part of an estimated 106 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Fire burns part of an estimated 105 tonnes of ivory and a tonne of rhino horn confiscated from smugglers and poachers at the Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers carry elephant tusks at their headquarters as part of an estimated 106 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers guard elephant ivory at their headquarters as part of an estimated 106 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger stacks elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo
Elephant tusks are loaded on a pick-up truck at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters as part of an estimated 106 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, are stacked onto pyres at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo
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China made a big push to eradicate ivory sales and demand has fallen since early 2014 due to a crackdown on corruption and slowing economic growth. Public awareness campaigns starring Chinese celebrities have also helped to highlight the impact of poaching.
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The wholesale price of raw ivory fell to $730 per kg in February from $1,100 per kg in November 2015 and $2,100 per kg in early 2014, according to Save the Elephants.

"Hong Kong's commitment is in stark contrast to China who are leading the way," Oliver Smith, chief executive of David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, said in a letter to Hong Kong lawmakers, adding that if the five-year period was unchanged, "an additional 150,000 elephants will have been killed."

(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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