Retired NBA star Yao Ming is using his international renown and domestic status as one of China's most recognizable public figures to try to convince his fellow Chinese citizens to stop seeking products made from elephant ivory and rhino horn, hoping to curb the demand that fuels poaching in Africa and is helping bring Kenyan elephants and rhinos perilously close to extinction.
The former Houston Rockets center arrived in Kenya on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012 — his first-ever visit to the African nation — to meet with local scientists and conservationists, to begin filming and to see the animals first-hand. From Jason Straziuso of The Associated Press:
Poaching deaths of elephants and rhinos are increasing, animal experts say, because of increased demand in Asia for rhino horns and elephant ivory.
Yao, the former NBA star from China, said Thursday he thinks increased public awareness about where ivory comes from is needed.
Julius K. Kipng'etich, the director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, gave Yao a tour of one of the organization's rooms filled with ivory from poached elephants. Kip, as the director is known, said Thursday that he hopes Yao takes back the message to China to say that when Chinese people buy ivory, they are helping lead elephants to extinction.
Bringing the message to China — and having one of that nation's greatest sporting heroes serve as the messenger — is especially critical for activists because "China is the world's most prominent destination for rhino horn and ivory, with projections suggesting there will be an added 250 million middle class consumers over the next 10 [to] 15 years," according to Laura Walubengo of Kenyan radio station/lifestyle site CapitalFM:
The massive consumption in China of the illegal wildlife parts and products meanwhile has been blamed on a combination of "old customs and traditions with new money," among other things.
Increasing populations of rhino and elephant between 1989 and 2007 have started dwindling dramatically due to an escalation of poaching activities.
Hit the jump for more photos from Yao's visit to Kenya, plus video of a press conference he gave in Nairobi after his 10-day stay.
There are only seven northern white rhinos left in the world; four of them are housed at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is working with London-based nonprofit Save the Elephants and wildlife charity organization WildAid on the documentary project, tentatively titled "The End of the Wild." Yao became involved in the film through his work as one of several celebrity ambassadors for WildAid; he has already filmed a public service announcement for the organization in which he blocks a bullet headed for an elephant as if it were a layup.
That image might appear somewhat goofy, but Yao's commitment to speaking out against practices harmful to animals is serious; this isn't the first time he's done it. Last September, he joined billionaire Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson in entreating consumers, especially those in his homeland of China, to stop buying and eating shark fin soup, an in-demand delicacy that requires shark fins for its production, leading to fishermen catching sharks, cutting off their fins and ostensibly leaving them to die, wreaking havoc on underseas ecosystems.
Yao has been writing about his trip to Africa on a just-started blog, detailing his introduction to the extent of the elephant and rhino poaching problem, his flight to Kenya on Virgin Atlantic — "my first time with Virgin (there's probably a joke in there somewhere)" — and his visit to the conservancy. He described his first physical encounter with a pair of rhinos named Najin and Suni in terms hoops fans might appreciate:
These are immense and powerful creatures. As one of them pushes me, I'm reminded of the immense pressure I used to feel when I had to guard Shaquille O'Neal. You knew that pressure while guarding Shaq, and you know it when a rhino leans on you.
But this power is meaningless in the face of a poacher's bullet or wire snare. [...]
It's tragic to know these impressive animals are among the last of their kind, just because some people believe their horn, which is just keratin like our fingernails, has healing properties.
The documentary is slated for release in 2013.
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