In response to significant elephant population declines in the 1970s and 1980s because of poaching for ivory, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in Asian and African elephant species by listing them on Appendix I in 1973 and 1989, respectively. Many southern African countries disagreed with the African elephant trade ban and have continued to argue against it since the mid-1980s. They maintain that their governments practise sound wildlife management policies and actions and, as a consequence, their national elephant populations have reached unsustainable size. They argue that they should not be penalized because other countries cannot manage their wildlife. Further, they say they need the proceeds from ivory and other by-product sales to finance conservation efforts. In 1997, the CITES Conference of Parties voted to allow Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to auction off 50 tonnes of government ivory stockpiles to Japanese traders on a one-off experimental basis, which took place in 1999. Ivory trade opponents allege that this sale stimulated ivory demand, resulting in a surge of elephant poaching. Nevertheless, CITES voted again in 2002 to allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to auction off another 60 tonnes of ivory after May 2004. Trade opponents have launched an active campaign to prevent the sales, warning that they could provoke a renewed elephant holocaust. This paper reviews available quantitative evidence on ivory trade and elephant killing to evaluate the arguments of the ivory trade proponents and opponents. The evidence supports the view that the trade bans resulted generally in lower levels of ivory market scale and elephant poaching than prevailed prior to 1990. There is little evidence to support claims that the 1999 southern African ivory auctions stimulated ivory demand or elephant poaching. Levels of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trading in a country are more likely to be related to wildlife management practices, law enforcement and corruption than to choice of CITES appendix listings and consequent extent of trade restrictions. Elephant conservation and public welfare can be better served by legal ivory trade than by a trade ban, but until demand for ivory can be restrained and various monitoring and regulation measures are put into place it is premature for CITES to permit ivory sales.