Washington - The federal government will enact a near total ban on the domestic sale of African elephant ivory under federal regulations issued on Thursday.It's been illegal for decades to import African elephant ivory for commercial use and to export raw ivory. The final rule largely focuses on sales inside the US. It restricts the sale of elephant ivory across state lines.Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that once illegal ivory enters the market, it becomes nearly indistinguishable from the legal ivory used in products such as knife handles, billiard cues and furniture, so it was necessary to put more restrictions in place. The rule also prohibits the export of ivory products, with exceptions for antiques.The administration is encouraging other nations to follow suit, and the final rule was announced just days before Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visit China. Demand for ivory there has helped fuel the illegal trade in African elephant ivory.The US delegation can now say Obama has fulfilled his pledge to nearly ban domestic ivory sales and can challenge Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the same, said US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe."We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant," Ashe said.The final regulation varies little from the proposed rule Obama announced last summer when visiting Kenya. That proposal generated more than 1.3 million responses from the public, said Ashe, second only to a proposal to remove the grey wolf from the endangered species list.The rule allows for some exceptions to the ban on interstate sales, namely musical instruments, furniture pieces and firearms that contain less than 200g of ivory and so long as the ivory makes up less than half the value and volume of the product. The rule also allows exceptions for antiques more than 100 years old.Sport trophiesThe final rule also continues to allow for the import of sport-hunted African elephant trophies, but limits the number to two per hunter annually.Ashe said that hunting can bring an economic value to elephants. They can be difficult to live with, but if that animal can have value, local people will seek to sustain the population rather than seek its removal.The population of African elephants in the wild is estimated at 470 000.The National Rifle Association has opposed the rule, saying that while it supports efforts to stop poaching and the illegal trade of ivory, the rule would do nothing to protect elephants and instead destroys the value of property held by countless gun owners and others.Various environmental and animal rights groups are largely supportive of the new rule."This US ban should be the catalyst for China's own ban, be the model for nations in Asia and Africa, and finally break down the world's trade in ivory," said Cristian Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society.