Beijing has imposed a one-year ban on imports of ivory carvings as critics say rising Chinese demand threatens African elephants with extinction, but campaigners described the move as "more symbolic than effective" February 27.
The measure came days ahead of a visit to China by Britain's Prince William, who has campaigned against illegal wildlife trafficking and is expected to speak on the issue during a stop in the southwestern province of Yunnan on March 4.
The ban took effect February 26 and was announced by China's State Forestry Administration in a statement on its website.
China is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but conservationists say it is the world's largest consumer of illegal ivory, with skyrocketing demand leading to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants each year.
Ms Sammi Li, a spokeswoman for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, welcomed the import ban as sending a message and "recognition by China of their role in the illegal ivory trade".
But she told AFP: "The actual volume to be banned is rather small, so the ban is more symbolic than effective."
"It is hugely optimistic sign but much more action is still needed," said Mr Ian Douglas-Hamilton, who founded Kenya-based Save the Elephants.
The ban was a "significant step in the right direction, signalling a growing realisation in China of the role they play in the demand for ivory," the zoologist said, calling for a total ivory ban.
"One year is not enough," said Ms Paula Kahumbu, who heads the Nairobi-based conservation organisation Wildlife Direct.
"China has been denying for a long time that the demand for ivory has been the cause of the killing of elephants," Ms Kahumbu told AFP.
"It's a very strong signal to the consumers of ivory that a complete ban is coming. I believe that they will soon ban the importation of ivory completely, and even the domestic trade."
Most illegal ivory is smuggled raw, and China has a significant domestic processing industry.
The country has a long tradition of ivory carving and regulated sales are legal, while Chinese collectors see the items as a valuable investment.