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NAIROBI (Reuters) - The price of ivory on Chinese markets has slumped by two-thirds since 2014 as Beijing rolls out a ban on trade in elephant tusks, but illegal markets in neighboring countries are expanding, researchers said.
The research, published on Wednesday by conservation group Save the Elephants, comes a day before China closes the last of its legal ivory factories.
Authorities there will also shutter all retail outlets by year-end in a bid to stem demand for a commodity that has expanded along with China's economy and decimated elephant populations across much of Africa over the past decade.
"I believe that the future of the African elephants is in the hands of China," said Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the group's founder and president.
Environmentalists have long said that China's licensed ivory trade offered opportunities to disguise the trafficking of poached tusks.
Esmond Martin, one of the report's authors, said some Chinese buyers were getting around the domestic ban by visiting markets across the border in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, which have expanded in recent years.
"There has been a boom in the illegal trade," he said. "What needs to be done is to close (this) down ...in neighboring countries."
Research by Save the Elephants in eight Chinese cities found licensed sellers were winding down stocks ahead of the retail ban.
Meanwhile the average price of raw ivory on illegal markets in China - $2,100 per kilogram in early 2014 - had slipped to $1,100 by late 2015 and was now around $730, the research showed.
The Chinese government does not reveal the prices it sells ivory to authorized factories but researchers said illegal ivory prices tracked the official ones at a slightly lower rate.
Save the Elephants said some ivory outlets they visited had started replacing elephant ivory with that of mammoths, dug out of the tundra in Russia and shipped to China.
While the ban has helped, Save the Elephants said China's slowing economy and a crackdown on corruption, including on the tradition of using ivory to bribe government officials, had also contributed to the slump in prices.
But the long-term success of efforts to protect elephants rested with the ability to make clear to those buying ivory that they were responsible for the eradication of a species.
Douglas-Hamilton said interaction with Chinese leaders and celebrities had resulted in change, with more people now associating ivory with dead elephants.
"Awareness has to be the long-term key for the future," he said. "Simply by the arithmetic (of China's population) ...if there is a substantial proportion buying ivory, that would be the end of the elephants."
editing by John Stonestreet