Activists are celebrating as the world's biggest ivory market officially closes its doors.

Elephants are having a pretty good 2016 so far.

Early this year, the Ringling Bros. circus announced that it would retire all elephants from its performances by May 2016, more than a year ahead of its original schedule, which would've had the elephants working until 2018.


Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.

Then, on Jan. 13, 2016, everyone's favorite betrunked pachyderms received even more good news:

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced plans to "phase out" ivory sales in the city.

Leung Chun-ying speaking in Hong Kong in 2015. Photo by Phillippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images.

Ivory, of course, is the hard, white material that comes from the teeth and tusks of various animals. Elephants, with tusks that are often bigger than those of walruses or warthogs, are the biggest source of ivory and most at risk from ivory poachers.

The use of ivory to craft items dates back to prehistoric times. In the modern age, ivory has been used to craft everything from billiard balls to piano keys to gun stocks.

A 26,000-year-old mammoth ivory carving on display in Paris. Photo by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.

The import and export of ivory is already banned in Hong Kong. But the ivory trade remains very much alive there.

About 400 sellers are permitted to trade in ivory material and products as long as they were created before 1989, which is when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species introduced a treaty that banned the sale of ivory products created after that year.

Activists like Alex Hofford of WildAid Hong Kong argue that while the treaty had its merits, it has resulted in a legal loophole, through which a large ivory black market has been able to survive.

"Hong Kong has always been the dark heart of the ivory trade," Hofford told CNN.

The plan introduced earlier this year will close the loophole and "ban totally the sale of ivory in Hong Kong" Chun-ying said in his statement. "We'll do it expeditiously. As quickly as we can."

Seized ivory tusks in Hong Kong, which were subsequently destroyed by the Chinese government in 2014. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images.

This total ban is poised to make a significant impact, as Hong Kong "displays for retail sale more elephant and mammoth ivory items than any other city in the world surveyed for ivory," according to a 2015 report from activist group Save the Elephants.

This is a huge victory for elephants, a species rapidly nearing extinction.

They needed a victory, too.

The demand for ivory has led to an epidemic of elephant poaching. In Africa, ivory poachers killed 100,000 elephants in the last three years. If that trend continues, African elephants could be extinct within a generation.

Dune Ives, senior researcher at Vulcan, told The Guardian last March that “in five years we may have lost the opportunity to save this magnificent and iconic animal.”

African elephants walking to a water hole in Tanzania. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.

In October 2015, after a visit to an elephant sanctuary in China, Britain's Prince William urged the Chinese to stop purchasing elephant ivory and rhino horn.

Prince William with a baby elephant in China's Yunnan province. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech broadcast on Chinese state television, he told the public to think of what they would tell their children if elephants went extinct on our watch.

"Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos, and tigers died out," he said, "but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity."

With Hong Kong finally phasing out the ivory trade, we might actually be able to save the species.

Which is great news for the whole world.

Especially since baby elephants look like this:

OH MY GOD LOOK AT HIM. Photo by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images.

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