Kenya elephant poaching
Hong Kong has been a major hub for the world's ivory trade Thomas Mukoya/Reuters file photo

Hong Kong is to ban the import and export of ivory in a move hailed by animal welfare activists as "historic". The city's leader, Leung Chun-ying, told lawmakers of his determination to crack down on the ivory trade "as soon as possible".

The Chinese city has the world's largest retail market for elephant ivory, with tusks used in traditional medicine and to make ornaments. Mainland Chinese visitors are the main purchasers with ivory smuggled across the Hong Kong border.

In his annual policy address on 13 January, chief executive Chun-ying said: "The government is very concerned about the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. It will kickstart legislative procedures as soon as possible to ban the import and export of elephant hunting trophies." He added the government would also look to impose "heavier penalties" on illegal trading of endangered species.

The announcement was welcomed by animal rights groups who urged Hong Kong lawmakers to set a deadline for the new policy pledge. Alex Hofford, from conservation group WildAid, told AFP: "We are delighted that the Hong Kong government has finally announced that they will start to phase out the local ivory trade. We're now urging the chief executive to set a timeline and follow through with concrete action as soon as possible."

Gavin Edwards, conservation director of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Hong Kong, added: "The chief executive's decision represents a significant step toward the end of Hong Kong's ivory trade and a major milestone for elephant conservation. It is no longer a question of if a ban is needed – we can focus on when and how to end Hong Kong's ivory trade."

It comes after repeated condemnation by animal welfare groups of the poaching of elephants and rhino in Africa for ivory, culminating in a call by Prince William for the world to end the "barbaric" practice in 2015.

President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama recently agreed to end commercial ivory sales in China and the United States. The announcement, in September 2015, marked the first public commitment by President Xi to end ivory sales in his country.

A 2015 report by Kenya-based conservation group Save the Elephants said the Hong Kong ivory market had encouraged the killing of elephant herds, with jewellery the most common type of end product.

Peter Knights, of WildAid, described today's announcement as a "historic step", adding: "History has shown that legal ivory sales only serve to provide a cover for illegal trade, which fuels the rampant poaching we see across Africa. Hong Kong has always been the epicentre of that trade."

Knights added the end of the trade "may be in sight" with prices falling in China. According to figures quoted by AFP, 242 tonnes of ivory were sold in Hong Kong between 1990 and 2008, an average of around 13 tonnes a year. Since 2010, recorded sales have dropped to just one tonne a year.

Numbering three to five million in the last century, African elephant populations have been severely reduced to its current level of 470,000 due to hunting. In the 1980s, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions, according to the WWF.

The ivory trade has been fueled by demand from Chinese markets Reuters

China accounts for 70% of world demand for ivory, according to wildlife NGOs. Every year around 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa for their tusks, primarily to satisfy the demand for ivory products in Asia. The international trade in elephant ivory, with some exceptions, was outlawed in 1989.