An assistant arranges a carved ivory tusk in the window of a Hong Kong store in October 2015. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

China promised Friday to halt its domestic ivory trade completely by the end of 2017, a decision greeted by environmentalists as offering real hope for an end to a poaching crisis that is wiping out tens of thousands of elephants across Africa.

“China’s announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation,” Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. “The large-scale trade of ivory now faces its twilight years, and the future is brighter for wild elephants.”

China said it would begin phasing out the ivory trade in March and cease processing and trading completely by Dec. 31, 2017.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group, said the news “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began,” while Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said she was “overwhelmed with joy.”

“This is great news that will shut down the world’s largest market for elephant ivory,” said Aili Kang, Asia director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Ivory traffickers have just lost one of their biggest markets.”

Customs officers seize ivory tusks, rhino horn and leopard skins at the Hong Kong customs headquarters in 2013. (Alex Hofford)

It is a huge step for a country that had previously argued that ivory carving was part of its cultural heritage and where intricately carved ivory items had become popular gifts to grease the wheels of government and business.

The government was moved not just by international pressure but also by changing attitudes among ordinary Chinese. Celebrities such as former NBA star Yao Ming have led campaigns to “stop the buying” of ivory — and simply to educate people that elephants had to die for the ivory to be taken.

There was also a realization that China’s key role in the illicit ivory trade was damaging its image in Africa.

After the market is shuttered, the Chinese Ministry of Culture will help ivory sector employees find other jobs, for example, encouraging “master carvers” to work in museums to help repair and maintain significant ivory works of art, the statement said. The government also pledged to ramp up law enforcement, and educate the public to reject ivory.

Peter Knights, chief executive of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group at the forefront of efforts to change Chinese attitudes toward the ivory trade, called it the “best possible news for Africa’s elephants” and congratulated President Xi Jinping for his leadership on the issue.

Although poaching may have peaked a few years ago, some 20,000 African elephants continue to be killed for their tusks every year, experts say, largely to meet demand from Asia, and particularly China, for ivory.

Africa’s elephant population has dwindled from about 1.2 million 35 years ago to between 400,000 and 500,000 now. Central African forest elephants could be extinct within the next decade if current trends continue, while Tanzania’s elephant population fell by 60 percent between 2009 and 2014, census data showed.

An elephant walks through the bush at the Southern African Wildlife College. (Denis Farrell/AP)

The global trade, thought to be worth around $10 billion annually, is run by international criminal syndicates, sometimes with help from African rebel groups.

But even if a ban is enforced in China, some experts warn that the trade could shift across the border into neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Burma, where large markets flourish selling endangered wildlife products to Chinese consumers. There is also a danger of traders passing off elephant ivory as legal mammoth ivory.

Still, a clear signal from the Chinese government is seen as going a long way toward making ivory as unfashionable here as it is in the West.

China retains a small stock of legal ivory purchased in 2008, when international trade in it was allowed. The state has been gradually supplying that ivory to carving workshops and selling it domestically. But this legal business, experts say, has provided cover for a vast underground trade network.

The announcement follows a pledge by Xi and President Obama in September 2015 to end the domestic trade in ivory in their respective countries. Hong Kong, another major hub for ivory smuggling, announced last week that it would raise maximum penalties for wildlife crime to 10 years and phase out its own trade in ivory by the end of 2021 — although pressure may now mount for it to move more quickly.

In January 2014, China signaled how official attitudes were changing by staging a ceremony to crush six tons of tusks and carved ivory ornaments that had been seized in anti-trafficking operations.

The United States has largely closed down its own ivory market by banning trade at the federal level and in several states, but experts said it still needs to do more in terms of enforcement.

The last bastion of the trade is now Japan, said Knights, of WildAid. He urged global opponents of the trade to shift their attention there.