In a big win for elephants, Hong Kong has pledged to completely phase out the sale of ivory in the city.

The announcement was made earlier today by Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, during his annual policy address. “The government is very concerned about the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa,” he stressed, adding that it will "take steps to ban totally the sale of ivory in Hong Kong" and "impose heavier penalties on smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species."

2014 02 12 Elephants Ivory Ornaments
An estimated 30,000 elephants are poached in Africa every year to feed demand for ivory products. Image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Hong Kong is considered the world’s largest retail market for ivory, but recent efforts by city authorities to crack down on illegal trade are starting to make a difference – an estimated 16.7 tons of ivory have been confiscated in Hong Kong in the last three years. The new announcement is being hailed as the final legislative nail in the ivory coffin, and conservationists are hoping it will result in the total elimination of trade in the city.

So when will the ban be enforced? Well, therein lies the rub. The 2016 policy address covered a range of topics, from economic development to healthcare, so the ivory announcement was one of many. Leung failed to provide a specific timeline, but stated that the government will "kickstart legislative procedures as soon as possible."

Conservationists and activists are hoping that implementation will be swift. Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, who has been pushing for a complete ban for some time, urges the government "to execute this commitment without delay."

Although the import and export of ivory has been banned in the city since 1989, as many as 400 licensed sellers have been granted special permission to trade in any ivory that pre-dates the ban. This legal market has created a loophole, allowing unscrupulous ivory dealers to exploit the poorly regulated industry.

"Hong Kong has always been the dark heart of the ivory trade," WildAid’s Alex Hofford told CNN. "This is where you place an order for poaching in Africa." WildAid blew the lid on the shady market when they went undercover last year, and captured footage showing just how easy it is for traders to get their hands on illegal ivory.

This thriving illegal industry puts Africa’s elephants in the crosshairs. Poachers kill an estimated 30,000 of these animals in Africa every year to feed demand for ivory that comes mostly from mainland China. At this rate, the current elephant population could be gone within a generation.

In recent years however, high-profile publicity campaigns and increased law enforcement have resulted in decreasing ivory prices, perhaps pointing to a market that is at the end of its lifespan.

Header: USFWS Mountain-Prairie