- Hong Kong will "phase out the local ivory trade", says Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying
- The city is the "dark heart of the ivory trade," activists say
- At present, campaigners say the legal ivory trade masks illegal smuggling and poaching
Hong Kong (CNN)Activists have hailed the announcement that Hong Kong will phase out the sale of ivory in the city, a major bastion of the trade.
Speaking during his annual policy address Wednesday, Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said the government will "take steps to ban totally the sale of ivory in Hong Kong," adding that it would "impose heavier penalties on smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species."
"We're absolutely delighted, this is fantastic news," said Alex Hofford of WildAid Hong Kong, which has long campaigned against the trade in the city.
Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, who has long pushed for a complete ban, said she urged the government "to execute this commitment without delay."
"I'm also calling on all Hong Kong people to strongly support this... policy and see it through to the end."
Legal trading and illegal poaching
At present, the import and export of ivory is banned in the city, but around 400 licensed sellers are permitted to trade in ivory material dating before a 1989 international treaty banning the trade.
Activists say this legal veneer hides an illegal trade that encourages and coordinates the poaching of elephants.
"Hong Kong has always been the dark heart of the ivory trade," said Hofford.
"This is where you place an order for poaching in Africa."
An undercover investigation by WildAid last year showed ivory traders boasting about how easy it is to break the current rules.
"I can buy smuggled ivory any time, but do you dare to receive them?" said one trader caught on camera.
"If you dare, then I will send them. I will send them to you from Africa."
Chinese demand killing elephants
Africa is struggling with an epidemic of illegal ivory poaching. Hunters kill tens of thousands of wild elephants every year for their tusks. Activists warn that at the current rate of killing, the wild African elephant could be extinct within a generation.
Much of the demand is coming from mainland China, where ivory is still seen by some consumers as a luxury item that connotes wealth.
In recent years however, Chinese authorities have cracked down on the trade, alongside a high-profile publicity campaign encouraging people not to buy wildlife goods.
"Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos and tigers died out, but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity," Britain's Prince William said in a speech broadcast on Chinese state television.
In a summit in the U.S. last year, President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced plans to stop the import of ivory as hunting trophies. They also pledged to take "significant and timely steps" to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.
"China has got better enforcement and better laws (than Hong Kong)," said Hofford.
This has seen smuggling groups thrive in the city until now, he added.
"Wildife kingpins have been using Hong Kong as a soft touch for a long time."