The sale of almost all ivory including “antique” items would be banned under plans set out by the Government to help end elephant poaching.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove set out proposals for a near-total ban on ivory sales in the UK as he warned declines in elephant populations fuelled by poaching for their tusks “shames our generation”.

About 20,000 elephants are being slaughtered annually due to the global demand in ivory and if current rates of poaching continue, the animals could become extinct within decades in some African countries, experts warn.

Conservation groups have called for a ban amid concerns the legal market in ivory in the UK has been used as a cover for trade in illegal ivory.

The UK also makes legal shipments of antiques to Asia, helping supply the world’s largest ivory markets which are driving the poaching crisis.

Existing rules allow for “worked” or carved items produced before March 3 1947 to be sold in the UK while sale of raw ivory of any age is prohibited.

Under the new proposals, which are being put out for consultation, sales of the older worked items would be banned.

The plans include some exemptions for items which do not contribute to the poaching of elephants, including musical instruments such as pianos with ivory keys, items containing only a small proportion of ivory and those which have significant historic, artistic or cultural value.

Sales to and between museums would also be exempted under the plans.

Mr Gove said: “The decline in the elephant population fuelled by poaching for ivory shames our generation.

“The need for radical and robust action to protect one of the world’s most iconic and treasured species is beyond dispute.

The UK Government is training an elite force of anti-poachers in African countries (PA)The UK Government is training an elite force of anti-poachers in African countries (PA)

“Ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol – so we want to ban its sale.”

The UK Government is also working to tackle poaching and the illegal trade by training an elite force of anti-poachers in African countries while Border Force officers share expertise with counterparts in other countries to stop wildlife trafficking.

Stop Ivory chief executive John Stephenson said: “By starting the process to bring in a total ban on ivory sales in the UK, the Government continues to work with the African countries leading the Elephant Protection Initiative to secure a meaningful future for elephants across Africa.

“The unprecedented crisis we face – with Africa’s natural heritage being destroyed and communities put at risk due to poaching by illegal armed gangs – will only stop when people stop buying ivory.”

WWF chief executive Tanya Steele said the plans showed the UK wanted to continue to be a leader in the fight to end large-scale poaching of elephants, but warned there was a long way to go and “no time to waste”.

She added: “Whilst discussions roll on, 55 African elephants a day are killed. We need to be the generation that ends the illegal ivory trade once and for all.

“This is about a lot more than banning ivory sales in one country.

“It means working with global leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and south-east Asia, to implement bans and stop the illegal trade.”

The US has already introduced a near-total ban while China and Hong Kong have announced plans to close their domestic markets.

The Government’s proposed ban – and its exemptions – would apply to exports as well as sales within the UK.