China says it will shut down its ivory trade at the end of 2017 in a move designed to curb the mass slaughter of African elephants.

The Chinese government said in a statement released on Friday that the processing and selling of ivory and ivory products will stop by the end of March as the country phases out its legal trade.

China had previously announced it planned to shut down the commercial trade, which conservationists described as significant because China's vast, increasingly affluent consumer market drives much of the elephant poaching across Africa.

Criminal syndicates have used the legal Chinese market, which allows the use of older stockpiles of ivory, as cover for their illicit business in tusks.