By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China, the world's largest importer and end user of elephant ivory tusks, is shutting a third of its ivory factories and retail stores on Friday, the first major step ahead of a formal ban on ivory sales by the end of the year.
China will shut 67 carving factories and stores with the remaining 105 outlets to be shut before the end of the year, according to documents released by China's Forestry Administration.
The high-profile move has been hailed by activists, but they caution that Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, remains a prime obstacle in eradicating the illegal elephant poaching trade.
The former British colony, which has the largest retail market for ivory and has traded it for more than 150 years, is a prime transit and consumption hub with more than 90 percent of consumers from mainland China.
Hong Kong set a time table for a ban on ivory trading last year with a phase-out time of five years. Lawmakers met this week to discuss the ban but have yet to decide on details and whether to shorten the phase-out process.
Rights groups say a five-year horizon is too long and the problem of laundering ivory will become far more rampant before a total ban is in place.
WildAid, a wildlife non-government organization, estimates up to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year. It said markets like Hong Kong had provided "laundering mechanisms for poached ivory and perpetuated the demand".
While the price of ivory has fallen by almost two thirds in the last three years, according to a report by Save the Elephants, the danger from poaching remains acute.
China made a big push to eradicate ivory sales and demand has fallen since early 2014 due to a crackdown on corruption and slowing economic growth. Public awareness campaigns starring Chinese celebrities have also helped to highlight the impact of poaching.
The wholesale price of raw ivory fell to $730 per kg in February from $1,100 per kg in November 2015 and $2,100 per kg in early 2014, according to Save the Elephants.
"Hong Kong’s commitment is in stark contrast to China who are leading the way," Oliver Smith, chief executive of David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, said in a letter to Hong Kong lawmakers, adding that if the five-year period was unchanged, "an additional 150,000 elephants will have been killed".
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Nick Macfie)