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Yao Ming, best known for his 7'6" height and NBA career, has turned into one of the world's most powerful animal activists.
Yao’s transformation began in 2006 when he was waylaid from the basketball court with an injury and he met with staff members from WildAid, a San Francisco-based charity. WildAid persuaded the man who began his career with the Shanghai Sharks to join their campaign to save the world’s actual sharks by pressing the Chinese people to give up their beloved shark fin soup.
Amazingly, through a series of TV commercials and countless public appearances, Yao convinced his fellow Chinese countrymen that eating shark fin soup is not a sign of sophistication but an act that is wiping out some of the ocean's most elegant and vital creatures. Today, sales of shark fins in China down by 50 to 70 percent (wow!).
In 2012, Yao visited Africa and became impassioned with saving rhinos and elephants from the raw reality of poaching, a trade that is largely supported by Chinese demand. The carving of elephant horn ivory not only has deep roots in Chinese history, but demand has exploded in recent years due to the nations booming economy. In the past three years alone, about 100,000 elephants have been poached for their tusks.
A documentary screened in China in August and scheduled to be presented in the US in November shows the usually collected Yao choking back tears as he stands above an elephant’s rotting carcass, its face brutally mangled to remove its tusks. Visiting the "Ivory Room" at the Kenya Wildlife Service was also a sobering experience.
Today, Yao's efforts to end elephant (and rhino) poaching includes more public appearances and commercials (beware: some graphic content), aiding elephant orphanages, and joining the efforts of The Yao Ming Foundation with WildAid, Save the Elephants, and the African Wildlife Foundation.
“Before [visiting Africa], it was more of a number for me — how many tons of ivory, how much money comes out of this business. Sometimes the number is cold,” he said. “After you visit Africa, it is very unique. I felt that I built some kind of special connection with the animals.”
Hilariously, Yao also commented he had also connected with Africa because “many animals there are bigger than me."
We can't express enough admiration and support for Yao's efforts. He is working against powerful forces: deeply embedded traditions, big money on both sides of the trade, and even NRA supporters here in the US who want ivory-handled rifles. But this big man with an even bigger heart might just be the right person save some of the world's most special creatures.