A major blow has been delivered to the illegal ivory trade with the announcement that China and the United States will co-operate to enact “nearly complete bans” on the import and export of ivory.

Conservationists say the agreement between China’s President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama, is the “most significant step yet” to close down an industry that has put elephants at risk of becoming an endangered species.

China is the world’s largest consumer of the ivory trade, which conservationists say is responsible for the slaughter of 30,000 African elephants each year.

Conservationists say the agreement is particularly encouraging as it shows that China is prepared to follow through with the promise it made in May to come down hard on its domestic ivory trade which is driven by many of China’s growing middle class who see ivory as a status symbol. They say the agreement is especially significant because the Chinese government controls, and has for many years “essentially encouraged”, the ivory trade in the country as an income source.

An already near-total ban on commercial ivory already exists in the U.S. where commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, are prohibited. California has a total ban on ivory sales and other States are considering following suit.

The Humane Society of the United States says the agreement between China and the U.S. is the first time leaders of the two countries have ever worked on a major animal conservation issue.

In a released statement, the Society says the illegal ivory trade has been linked to terrorists and organized crime. With the Chinese and U.S. agreement, wildlife trafficking has been elevated “into the diplomatic discourse among the world’s most important global political leaders.”

The executive director of the non-profit group WildAid, Peter Knights says the agreement “should have a profound effect” on elephant poaching.

He says “The fight will carry on, but this is probably the largest single step that could have been taken” adding that the agreement also puts “Hong Kong under notice” where the “legal commercial trade often provide cover for those seeking to launder illegal ivory.”

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