Plans for near-total ban on ivory sales set out by Government

Elephants could soon become extinct in some African countries if poaching is not stopped. Credit: PA

The sale of almost all ivory including "antique" items could soon be banned under new plans set out by the Government in a bid to end elephant poaching.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has set out proposals for a near-total ban on ivory sales in the UK as he warned declines in elephant populations fuelled by poaching for their tusks "shames our generation".

Every year 20,000 elephants are slaughtered due to a global demand for ivory and if current rates of poaching continue, the mammals could become extinct within decades in some African countries, experts warn.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) there are only 415,000 African elephants left and between 40,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants.

At the start of the 20th century there were an estimated 100,000 Asian elephants and between three and five million African elephants.

The significant decline in numbers is largely due to loss of habitat and poaching, which has seen an upsurge in recent years.

Ivory products on sale in Laos. Credit: ITV News

Conservation groups are calling for a ban on ivory sales amid concerns the legal market has been used as a cover for the trade in illegal ivory.

The UK also makes legal shipments of antiques to Asia, helping supply the world's largest ivory markets which are driving the poaching crisis.

Existing rules allow for "worked" or carved items produced before March 3, 1947, to be sold in the UK.

Sales of raw ivory of any age are banned.

Under the new proposals, which are being put out for consultation, sales of the older worked items would also be prohibited.

However, the new plans include some exemptions for items which do not contribute to the poaching of elephants, including musical instruments such as pianos with ivory keys, items containing only a small proportion of ivory and those which have significant historic, artistic or cultural value.

Sales to and between museums would also be exempted under the plans.

Everyday, 55 African elephants are killed. Credit: PA

Speaking about the new proposals, Mr Gove told how "the decline in the elephant population fuelled by poaching for ivory shames our generation".

He continued: "The need for radical and robust action to protect one of the world's most iconic and treasured species is beyond dispute.

"Ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol - so we want to ban its sale.

"These plans will put the UK front and centre of global efforts to end the insidious trade in ivory."

The Government is also working to tackle poaching and the illegal ivory trade by training an elite force of anti-poachers in African countries while Border Force officers share expertise with counterparts in other countries to stop wildlife trafficking.

Ivory products seized by police in China. Credit: PA

Stop Ivory chief executive John Stephenson said: "By starting the process to bring in a total ban on ivory sales in the UK, the Government continues to work with the African countries leading the Elephant Protection Initiative to secure a meaningful future for elephants across Africa.

"The unprecedented crisis we face - with Africa's natural heritage being destroyed and communities put at risk due to poaching by illegal armed gangs - will only stop when people stop buying ivory."

WWF chief executive Tanya Steele said the plans showed the UK wanted to continue to be a leader in the fight to end large-scale poaching of elephants, but warned there was a long way to go and "no time to waste".

She added: "Whilst discussions roll on, 55 African elephants a day are killed.

"We need to be the generation that ends the illegal ivory trade once and for all.

"This is about a lot more than banning ivory sales in one country.

"It means working with global leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and south-east Asia, to implement bans and stop the illegal trade."

The US has already introduced a near-total ban while China and Hong Kong have announced plans to close their domestic markets.