A state-owned Chinese retail chain has suspended sales of elephant ivory.

The move follows a series of high-profile seizures of smuggled ivory in Hong Kong and after protests by conservation groups drew growing attention to the trade.

In a statement, Chinese Arts & Crafts said it had suspended sales of elephant ivory at its stores in China and Hong Kong beginning in mid-March.

"Due to the adjustment of product mix, Chinese Arts & Crafts (HK) Ltd has suspended the business of selling (elephant) ivory products at all Chinese Arts & Crafts branches," it said.

The World Wildlife Fund ranks China as the world's biggest end-market for illegal elephant ivory.

Animal rights groups say demand there is fuelling a surge in poaching in Africa.

Hong Kong, a free port on the country's southern coast, has long served as a key trans-shipment point for illegal tusks.

"(This) goes a long way towards stigmatizing the consumption of ivory and ivory products," said Alex Hofford, programme director for Hong Kong for Elephants and consultant for WildAid.

China, whose government-licensed ivory carving factories provide the basis for a legal trade, has been criticised for ignoring a parallel black market and being slow to enforce tough laws that could jail convicted smugglers for life.

About 22,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2012, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The convention banned trade in elephant ivory in 1989 and later allowed a limited amount to be sold.

The total population of African elephants is now estimated at between 420,000 and 650,000.