The sale and export of almost all ivory items would be banned in the UK under plans set out by the government.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has announced a consultation to end the trade in ivory of all ages – previous attempts at a ban would have excluded antique ivory produced before 1947.
The government says there will be some exemptions, for musical instruments and items of cultural importance.
Conservation groups have given a guarded welcome to the plan.
While the UK has had a ban on the trade in raw ivory tusks, it has become the world’s leading exporter of legal ivory carvings and antiques in recent years.
According to an Environmental Investigation Agency report, there were more than 36,000 items exported from the UK between 2010 and 2015, more than three times that of the next biggest exporter, the US.
Conservationists argue that these sales stimulate the demand for the product, and are linked to increased elephant poaching across Africa.
But previous attempts in the UK by the Conservative Party to limit sales of ivory have failed to get off the ground.
A ban on sales of ivory produced after 1947 was announced by then Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom in 2016 but a follow-up consultation never materialised.
However, a 12-week consultation on Mr Gove’s proposals is due to start immediately, and a ban on sales and exports is likely to be in place by the new year.
The government says that the proposals are being driven by concern for the 20,000 elephants that are killed by poachers every year.
“The decline in the elephant population fuelled by poaching for ivory shames our generation,” said Mr Gove in a statement.
“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.”
While the government says the plans are driven by concerns over elephants, there are other factors at play.
Britain will host a major illegal wildlife conference in 2018 and it would be embarrassing if the UK was continuing to allow a domestic market in ivory while countries like China were moving to close theirs as they have promised to do by the end of this year.
“The key thing is, we hope, they will have committed to the ban before this conference,” said Heather Sohl from WWF UK.
“It means they will be able to engage with the government of China, which is moving to end domestic markets. The UK will have a greater standing as to how that China ban is enforced and it will also strengthen their hand in dealing with countries with legal markets such as Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.”
While environmental groups have welcomed the government’s new stand, there are concerns over the size and scale of exemptions to the ban.
Mr Gove says there should be four categories of ivory items allowed for sale. These include musical instruments; items with only a small proportion of ivory (called a de minimis exemption); items of significant historic, artistic or cultural value; and sales between museums.
Some conservationists are worried that if these exemptions are too broad, they could become loopholes and undermine attempts at a ban. Others though believe that clear and strong restrictions can be put in place.
“We can look to examples that already exist. In the US, for example, they have a de minimis exemption where federal law says that items can only be sold if they contain less than 20% of ivory by volume. That has been working in the US so far,” said WWF’s Heather Sohl.
But those involved in the antiques business are not happy about the proposed ban. Noelle McElhatton from the Antiques Trade Gazette said those involved in the trade abhor poaching and are disgusted by what is happening to the African elephant.
“We will be encouraging our readers to respond to the consultation. We expect art and antiques sellers and buyers to make the case that a ban on the bona fide trade in pre-1947-created objects made of or including ivory – from Georgian chests of drawers to Victorian pianos and Art Deco figures – will not save a single living elephant.
“We feel strongly that an outright ban would be an over-reaction and would be very detrimental to the honest and legitimate trade of pre-1947 ivory.”
The consultation will run until 29 December.