Every year there are more people who believe that ground tiger bone and rhinoceros horn are good for their health or potency, and fewer tigers and rhino to provide it.
Leading estimates put the world wild tiger population at 5,000 and rhino population at 10,000. The chances are fairly good that in a decade, whatever the United States has done or failed to do, the only tiger and rhino alive in the world will be in captivity. That is something for people who disapprove of zoos to think about.
This is the context in which President Clinton banned wildlife product imports from Taiwan. The United States had warned China and Taiwan for a year that trade sanctions might follow their failure to implement their official prohibition of imports of tiger and rhino tissue.
In much of Asia, traditional medicine finds many uses for parts of dead animals of both species. Population growth and prosperity in the two Chinas create market forces for poaching and smuggling these animals in Africa and Asia.
President Clinton singled out Taiwan, because China did heed the warning to some extent with a public campaign against killing and smuggling endangered wildlife. Still, it is politically convenient that while the U.S. is holding trade hostage to human rights practices in mainland China, it takes stronger action on animal rights or environmental issues with Taiwan.
The ban affects less than one-tenth of one percent of Taiwan's massive exports to the United States -- less than $25 million of a $25 billion export stream. Since Taiwan enjoys a massively favorable balance of trade with the U.S., it is unlikely to turn this gesture into a trade war.
At least this trade sanction is for a trade-related issue. Even so, critics will wonder who appointed the United States the world's game ranger, as well as who appointed it human rights policeman.
The best solution is for Taiwan to take the measures the U.S. has urged. If not, the illicit trade in tiger and rhino parts will cease in a few years anyway, through disappearance of product.
The chances are that, even now, the ill of Taiwan and China are being treated with a lot of fake tiger and rhino. The real question is whether the trade will end with tiger and rhino alive in the wild. The poachers and smugglers are putting themselves out of business.
Too bad they are putting these majestic animals out of business as well.