In 2014, the illegal sale of animal products was estimated to be worth $20 billion worldwide. The two countries with the largest demand? China and the United States. But one man who straddles both worlds is taking a stand against this injustice and fighting to suppress the mainstream appetite for ivory. International basketball star and wildlife advocate, Yao Ming, 34, recently joined Animal Planet on a trip to Africa to witness this issue first hand.
The one-hour special, narrated by Edward Norton, follows Yao on his journey through the wildlife reserves of Kenya. Everywhere he goes, he experiences the affect poaching has had not only on the native Samburu people, who have developed a close relationship with these animals, but also the orphaned elephants and rhinos traumatized by the death of their parents. “This documentary makes the words and numbers on a page come to life…the picture we saw in Africa is critical,” Yao tells MiLLENNiAL.
The War on Ivory
Over the last 60 years, more than 4.5 million elephants have been killed and every year more than 25,000 are sacrificed for the ivory trade. To add to this sickening fact, two rhinos are killed every day for their horns and only seven White Rhinos are currently alive. “The huge price motivates poachers to persist,” Yao says in the documentary. “And if we buy ivory, it makes all of us killers as well.”
This past Oct. 4, thousands of protestors took to the streets in 136 different countries for the synchronized Global March for Elephants and Rhinos and demanded legislation outlaw the sale of ivory. Activists in Kenya insisted China shut down all 37 ivory carving factories and 130 retail outlets.
But while policymaking may put pressure on the industry from the top down, Yao reminds us laws don’t stop the bleeding. The only way to reduce the number of killings is to kill the industry itself. Demand needs to be eliminated if we are to improve the situation.
Yao Ming on Chinese Demand
Giving us a brief overview of Chinese attitudes, Yao says, “Ivory is in our history. For one thousand years, it has been a symbol for wealthy and powerful people.” And just as fancy cars and flashy accessories represent the success of a person, Yao believes millennials in China are becoming more aware and mature to the circumstances of this particular material. “The culture is changing…people over there are looking for things that are good for society,” he adds.
In addition to China’s ivory epidemic is their customary demand for shark fin soup. In 2013, Yao released a PSA to replace the status symbol surrounding shark fin soup for one of shame and dishonor instead of wealth and power. The response was tremendous. After the PSA aired, the demand for shark fin soup declined by 50 to 75 percent, resulting in a drastic import reduction from 10,000 to just 3,000 tons.
“We try to change the attitude from the root by showing something real, which is to try to persuade people to stop buying that kind of product. So there would be no reason for the poachers to sell that stuff,” he states proudly.
Standing Up for Elephants and Rhinos
The success of this campaign motivated Yao to do the same thing for elephants and rhinos. “I think elephants are such a beautiful animal. Smart. Lots of character. When I was in Africa and even before I went there, I loved their soul. It’s a very socialized animal. Just like humans. They have intelligence and emotions. They can recognize people who have helped them or hurt them before and they react to that. They are just like human society.”
Elephants are not just amazing creatures to observe, but they are also extremely vital to the web of life in Africa. According to Science Direct, elephants are considered “megagardeners” and serve as seed dispersers for tree diversity. They also help balance the ecosystem for other species by opening up the land to create firebreaks and dig into the ground for watering holes. With only 400,000 elephants left, the ivory trade could have serious ecological implications on Africa’s biodiversity.
Likewise, rhinos are important to the ecosystem by helping to diversify plant life and create grazing spots for other animals. They also contribute to local economies through tourism by being one of the Top 5 animals seen on safaris. So far this year, 700 rhinos have been killed in South Africa, home to the largest rhino population.
Becoming an Ambassador for WildAid
Yao tells us three years ago he switched his activism focus from shark fin to ivory and has so far received a lot of positive feedback. “When our message is spread by those who see this documentary, people can join us and hopefully wipe out this black market.”
Partnering with WildAid, the nonprofit fighting the illegal wildlife trade with public awareness campaigns, Yao has taken his actions to the next level by being a global spokesperson for the organization. Executive Director for WildAid, Peter Knights says, “Yao represents the next generation of conservationists. Having him as an ambassador is probably the best thing that could happen to wildlife.”
With their efforts on conservation and public awareness, Yao hopes that within the next five years, his work fosters a prolonged future for these endangered species. “I just hope that the elephant has a much more safe place to live and does not have to be orphaned. That is what we are working on.” To help Yao achieve this goal over the next five years, take the pledge to Be Ivory Free and save Africa’s endangered species.
Saving Africa’s Giants with Yao Ming airs Tues, Nov. 18 at 10pm ET/PT on Animal Planet. Tune in to learn more about the issue of wildlife trafficking and the heroic stance Yao is taking to combat this illegal global trade.