China’s Former Basketball Star Yao Ming Works to Save Africa’s Elephants

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To help its passengers shorten their time, Beijing Subway screens endless video clips. Most of them are rather boring commercials, some promote the Chinese dream (the latest catch phrase of Chinese politics). Sometimes even people, who are interested in the so-called new Asian-African interactions, can find something interesting in the videos. Recently, one could watch a short clip in which Yao Ming, the retired Chinese NBA super star, is sitting in southern Africa’s veld, surrounded by elephants and rhinos. At first glance, one could have thought of it as a commercial for an airline promoting Africa as a tourist destination, but it turned out to be a commercial for Yao’s own engagement for saving some of Africa’s most vulnerable creatures.    

Between 2011 and 2013, about 100,000 elephants have been poached for their tusks. One driving force behind this mass slaughter is the ever-rising Chinese demand for ivory to supply an ever-richer nation. “China is a rising economic country. More and more people are living in better economic conditions now, but we have to balance our desires,” Yao says. “If we don’t balance that, it is pretty obvious we cannot live alone on this planet. If there is a list of species going extinct, I am pretty sure we won’t be last on that list.”

In order to persuade his fellow citizens to give up ivory, Yao produced a documentary called documentary “The End of the Wild”, which was screened in China in August and will be shown in the United States in November this year.

Ivory, which comes from the elephant tusks, is considered a valuable status symbol in China. As the country's middle class grows, the demand for ivory rises; fueling a major poaching crisis in Africa. Rhino horns are also coveted in China for their purported life-saving health benefits. Thus a pound of rhino horn can sell for more than $30,000 on the black market. According to some estimates, rhinos could become completely extinct in five to 10 years at the rate they are being killed. Yao wants to highlight the ties between China's consumption and the impending extinction of these animals.

Yao’s wildlife activism began in 2006, when he first met with staff members from WildAid, a San Francisco-based charity. The activists persuaded the player, who began his career with the Shanghai Sharks, to join their campaign to save the world’s current  shark population by pressing the Chinese people to give up shark fin soup. Yao started to focus his work on elephants and rhinos six years later, when he visited Kenya and South Africa in 2012 in order to learn more about the poaching crisis. He witnessed the dramatic effects poaching causes not only  on Africa’s endangered elephant and rhinoceros populations, but also on the human communities that coexist with them.

In April 2013, Yao launched the “Say No to Ivory” and the “Say No to Rhino Horn” campaign with several wild life protection organizations. He has been a leader in the effort to reduce demand for ivory and rhino horn, and has been featured in television ads and billboards. In March 2014, Yao even delivered a petition during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) asking China’s government to ban sales of ivory.

Yao previously also tried to help to reduce China’s demand for shark fin through his campaigns. He appeared in public service messages that have reached hundreds of millions of Chinese on broadcast and satellite television, LCD screens on trains and in subway and railway stations, airports, airline in-flight entertainment, shopping malls, banks, taxis, and/as well as universities and hospitals. Yao’s messages seems to have contributed to a change in public opinion and might have encouraged President Xi’s administration to ban shark fin from state banquets, although Xi was probably not so concerned about the animals and this had much more to do with his fight against corruption in China. Nevertheless, a 2013 survey revealed that 85% of respondents in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu stopped eating shark fin soup within the last three years. Sixty-five percent of those who quit shark fin cited public awareness campaigns as a reason.

Time will tell if his current campaign will be similar successful, but Yao’s commitment is an interesting case of Chinese soft power not orchestrated by the state, which therefore may have a more profound impact than a lot of the instruments the Chinese state uses to communicate with the world.




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