A new British law banning all ivory sales has been welcomed by a dozen African states, and by campaigners who say poachers have been using the legal trade in antique ivory to cover their own activities.

The law has been described as the best Christmas present for the world’s threatened elephants, and a significant blow for the world’s ivory smugglers.

For years, Britain has been at the centre of a flourishing international trade in antique ivory.

But there’s evidence that the legal trade has fuelled demand, and provided cover for criminal gangs smuggling fresh tusks to China.

Now Britain is shutting its industry down, and calling on other European nations to follow suit. The environment secretary Michael Gove said the UK has shown global leadership.

In Africa, a few governments still argue that a managed ivory trade is the best policy.

But in many countries, elephant populations are being wiped out by heavily-armed gangs and campaigners insist that only a total ban on all ivory trade can save the species.

The fear is that elephants, like the rhinos, could be reduced to living in a handful of protected parks.