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Ex-NBA Star Yao Ming Encourages Chinese To Stop Buying Ivory


Former NBA star Yao Ming is tall - really tall - 7 foot 6. And his new life's work is protecting some of the giant creatures of Africa, a place where he feels small.

YAO MING: I like the feeling. I like that feeling. I feel myself as small over there. Everything is small when you're standing in Africa. The land is huge. The sky is blue - the cloud and also the mountain, the water and the animal running around.

MONTAGNE: And a stunning number of African elephants are being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory - 25,000 just last year. Many hundreds of rhinoceros, who were killed for their horns - desired in much of Asia for their supposed medicinal uses.

Yao Ming took a trip to Kenya to see the problem for himself. He's working with Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, a wildlife conservation foundation. They've launched what amounts to an advertising campaign in China aimed at getting people there to stop buying ivory.

PETER KNIGHTS: We have billboards all over the airports. We have these video billboards which are all over Beijing in different cities. This is a campaign that can kind of reach the scale that a major product would.

MONTAGNE: Yao Ming, who is a huge star in his home country, joined up with WildAid a few years ago in an earlier campaign to reduce demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China. This new effort produced a film of his trip to Africa, which aired in China, and tonight will air on Animal Planet. In the film, Yao Ming is greatly moved when he sees the carcasses of elephants and rhinoceros.

MING: It's definitely very emotions in the moments when you see - when you see their carcass laying on the ground. And it's very sad and very - you know, sometimes I try run away. We sees couple of carcass. There's few time - not just once. I tell Peter - I say, that's it. That's - I can't see that anymore.

MONTAGNE: I mean, some of these animals, you know, their tusks have been cut off, or in one instance, a horn - the creatures are still alive.

MING: Yes, that is mostly a rhino, because there's no way you can take - take a tusk out of an elephant's body while he's still alive. They had to cut their face off.

KNIGHTS: The situation is so out of control now that not only are they instead of shooting the rhino with guns - because that causes sound and brings in the rangers. So they're using tranquilizer darts to just tranquilize the rhinos, literally hacking their face off. And then the rhinos are waking up, recovering from the tranquilizer and unusually dying days after, after days and days of pain.

The other thing that's happening is the vultures - which usually the way that the rangers can find a carcass is from the vultures. So some of the poachers have started poisoning the vultures. This problem is so out of control.

MONTAGNE: In the film, you talk about how Yao is an ideal ally for the work that you and others are doing. Well, mainly because banning ivory won't necessarily stop poaching. The key really, ultimately, is cutting demand. And China is such a huge market for ivory.

KNIGHTS: Absolutely. You know, Yao and some of the other people who've joined this campaign, like Jackie Chan, have been incredibly influential of getting the message out in China. And the reality is, just like with the drugs trade, you know, we could spend billions if not trillions of dollars trying to enforce our way out of this. But if the demand is still strong, all you're really doing is escalating the war. And what we want to try and do is defund this war. And that means winning hearts and minds in Asia to not purchase these products. And we've had an incredible amount of success with the shark fin soup business, where partly Yao's leadership has led to a 50 to 70 percent reduction in consumption of shark fin in the last two years in China.

MONTAGNE: But ivory's a little bit different, am I right? It's a little bit tougher challenge.

KNIGHTS: It is and it isn't. The amount of people consuming ivory is much much smaller than the amount of people consuming shark fin soup. People are buying ivory thinking that the elephants died of natural causes and they're not causing any problems. So it's a lot about education and it's all about fashion. So what we're trying to do is change the societal attitudes to these things. And again, you know, you have grandchildren saying to their grandfather you can't buy rhino horn, or you can't buy ivory. And, you know, people will listen to that. So things - things can change very quickly in China.

MONTAGNE: Yao Ming, you - there was a very poignant moment in the film, where you see a northern white rhino. And there are only seven of them left. What were you thinking then?

MING: I mean, the white rhino - last of seven left and...

KNIGHTS: Down to six, actually.

MING: It's down to six now, actually.

KNIGHTS: One just passed away.

MING: You know, sometimes I would put myself - imagine myself in their position. They must be very alone and hopeless to see, you know, not just a species dying out. It's an entire cultural being wiped out. That is how I feel. With a number - there are only six left. But on the other hand's side, elephants and the black rhino -there's still hope there. And hopefully we can turn this around.

MONTAGNE: Yao Ming and also Peter Knights of the WildAid Foundation - thank you very much for joining us.

KNIGHTS: Thank you very much.

MING: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The film "Saving Africa's Giants With Yao Ming" airs tonight on Animal Planet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.