A year even more disastrous for elephants than it was for celebrities is ending with some great news for the species. China, by far the world's biggest market for ivory, announced Friday that it is phasing out the ivory trade and will have a complete ban in place by the end of 2017, the BBC reports. Conservation groups including the World Wildlife Federation praised the move as a historic step towards protecting elephants, which poachers have been slaughtering in huge numbers to supply the Chinese market. A 18-country "Great Elephant Census" released this year found that a third of Africa's elephants were wiped out between 2007 and 2014, with the population continuing to drop 8% a year.
Around 70% of poached ivory is believed to end up in China. "Ivory traffickers have just lost one of their biggest markets," said Aili Kang of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Elly Pepper of the Natural Resources Defense Council described the move as "critical to saving the species." Beijing says commercial processing and sale of ivory will be halted by March 31 and trading will be phased out entirely over the following months. The New York Times reports that negotiations between China and the US may have speeded up the introduction of the ban. After Xi Jinping visited Washington in 2015, the White House released a statement saying both nations had agreed to " take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory." (Poaching has caused more elephants to be born tuskless.)