Conservationists say ivory auctions in four Southern African countries this week have raised more than $15 million for conservation efforts. The ivory sale was organized by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  The organization says the money will go for African elephant conservation and to support local communities. Lisa Schlein reports from Geneva.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe sold more than 100 tons of ivory to Chinese and Japanese accredited traders. CITES says all the ivory sold was from legal, government-owned stocks.

CITES Senior Officer in the Anti-smuggling, Fraud and Organized Crime Office, John Sellar, said most of the ivory came from elephants that died of natural causes during the last 20 years or were culled before 1994 as part of a population control program.

"They were not killed in order to get their ivory. And, often the story seems to be out in the media that these countries have gone out and slaughtered elephants in order to get ivory to sell. That is not the case at all. They are selling ivory that is being naturally accumulated. They would have this ivory whatever else they did," he said.

CITES banned all international commercial ivory trade in 1989.  In a first experiment, it allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell their legal stocks of raw ivory in 1997.  

It says the five million dollars they made from the sales were used for elephant conservation activities. As a consequence, CITES said the poaching levels in Africa decreased for two consecutive years following the sale.  

Sellar rejected criticism that the sale of legal ivory promotes elephant poaching. He said there is an incredible misconception that the CITES ban put an end to poaching.

He said the illegal trade and poaching of elephants never stopped. And, in recent years there have been major seizures of illegal ivory leaving Africa and going to Asia.

He said markets awash in illegal ivory can be found in some African countries that supposedly are vehemently opposed to this trade.

"There is, I am afraid, incredible hypocrisy attached to all this and misconceptions attached to all this," Sellar said. "We are convinced that by allowing this legal trade that should help impact upon the illegal activities. There is a legal demand that exists in China and Japan. It has existed there for centuries. That demand is not going to go away. I have explained that you have this legal supply in southern Africa. CITES believes that it makes sense to connect these two and by doing so, hopefully, one removes the need for poaching and illegal trade," he said.  

Sellar calls the illegal trade in ivory a big rip-off. He says ivory that has entered the market illegally over the past year has sold for between $750 and $850 a kilogram. He says the average price of ivory sold at the legal auctions was about $160 per kilogram.

He says this is clearly an instance where crime does not pay, at least for the buyer.