BEIJING – Former NBA all-star center Yao Ming is now dishing out assists to much wilder targets.
After retiring from the Houston Rockets in 2011, Yao returned to China and set out to end his homeland's traditional appetite for endangered and threatened animal products.
As an ambassador for international conservation organization WildAid, Yao has campaigned to persuade his countrymen to give up the key ingredient in one of their traditional delicacies: shark–fin soup. The “I’m FINished with Fins” campaign, which also featured Jackie Chan, soccer star David Beckham and NBA player Jeremy Lin, has been credited with reducing the tens of millions of sharks killed for their fins each year in China by at least 50 percent.
Buoyed by the success of that campaign, Yao has now expanded his preservation efforts to rhinos and elephants, two species that have suffered massive population declines due to increased demand for ivory from the increasingly affluent Chinese market. However, a 2007 survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found 70 percent of China people did not even know ivory comes from dead elephants. The Chinese word for ivory, “xiangya,” translates to “elephant teeth,” creating the misconception that ivory falls out and grows back naturally.
Yao traveled to Africa to film “The End of the Wild,” a documentary that will air this fall on Animal Planet. It looks at the consequences of an illegal wildlife trade in which 33,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks and 95 percent of the rhinos alive 40 years ago have now been hunted and killed.
“The reason these poachers go to Africa is because they make a profit,” Yao told NBC News. “There is a market here and if we can raise enough public awareness about the animals’ situation, people will help us to reduce the market and help us stop the poachers.”
This drive led Yao to deliver a petition to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March asking for a complete ban on the sale of ivory. The ex-basketball star said he has not received any feedback yet but said he was confident “a lot of people are aware of the petition and support us.”
Exporting ivory internationally has been banned in China, but people can still buy pieces at government-sanctioned stores provided they have a certified ID card. But critics say these sales perpetuate demand and boost a thriving market for counterfeit IDs.
Despite the considerable challenges, Yao is optimistic that Chinese society will embrace his efforts to preserve endangered animals. Family members have been supportive, but he is not holding out hope they will join him on future conservation trips.
"My daughter is only four… she is scared of the animals," Yao said.