Legal Ivory Auctions End With $15 Million Sold

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The world's first legal ivory auctions in nearly a decade ended Thursday with four African nations selling more than 100 tons of tusks to Chinese and Japanese traders for nearly $15 million.

The money raised during the controversial week of sales will be used for elephant conservation.

The auctions took place after South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were granted a one-time exemption from the 1989 global ban on trade in ivory because of their thriving elephant herds.

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The approval came after heated debate within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

The move has prompted protests from African nations with dwindling elephant populations as well as animal welfare groups, who say increasing ivory supplies will stimulate demand, smuggling and poaching.

"We fully appreciate and embrace our responsibility to ensure that we stamp down on poaching of any kind and so we intend to use considerable amounts of the funds we raise today toward increasing our anti-poaching capacity," said David Mabunda, chief executive of South African National Parks.

At the closed-door sales ended in Pretoria, South Africa auctioned some 47 tons of ivory stockpiled at the Kruger National Park to 12 Chinese and 22 Japanese buyers. It raised $6.7 million, or an average price of $142 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

This is a fraction of what tusks fetch on the black market in Asia, where ivory is used to produce jewelry and art.

Willem Wijnstekers, head of CITES, said he hoped the relatively low price at the controlled, legal sales would send a message to black marketeers.

"Importers should see that they can buy ivory cheaper from legal sources," he said in a telephone interview.

Under terms agreed with CITES, South Africa and its neighbors will not be allowed to export ivory again for nine years.

Even though the elephant is classed as "vulnerable" at international levels, South Africa's elephant population of 20,000 is set to double by 2020, placing a heavy toll on the balance of nature in the Kruger National Park and other wildlife centers.

The government last year warned that it would have to resume killing elephants — banned since 1995 — to try to control the population explosion.