Three years after his official retirement as a player in the NBA and for the Chinese national team, international star Yao Ming is still handing out assists on the world stage.
The former Rockets All-Star center is promoting a documentary film designed to convince people to stop buying ivory and end the slaughter of elephants and rhinos as poaching reaches its highest levels ever.
Estimates say 33,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks and the rhino population in the world has decreased 95 percent over the past 40 years, The result is as the value of increasingly scarce ivory has risen from $5 a pound in 1990 to $1,500 in today.
During filming of the movie, “End of the Wild,” which took place during a trip to Kenya and South Africa in 2012, Yao learned about the crisis and even walked among the carcasses of five elephants, butchered for their tusks by poachers.
“I believe what people will see in those pictures, [they] will remember it,” Yao said in a release from the film’s production company. “That’s what we’re here for: film this, bring it back home … and show everybody the reality.”
The film is the latest of Yao’s projects in partnership with WildAid, a nongovernmental organization devoted to stopping the illegal trade in wildlife. He had previously led a campaign against the killing of sharks for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China.
Demand in Yao’s home country is, in part, responsible for the increase in demand for ivory, researchers say. An emerging Chinese middle class wants the same trinkets and ornaments as the richest in society.
Yao, speaking ahead of the premier of the film earlier this month on CCTV in China, acknowledged the special role of Chinese consumers’ increasing demand for products from endangered animals and in curbing that demand.
“It is stunning what China has achieved in the past three decades economically, and at least some of us have emerged as winners,” he said in an interview with the New York Times Sinosphere blog. “But our purchasing power is straining the resources of the earth.”
Researchers also place much of the blame on the United States. Statistics show that his former NBA hometown of Houston plays a big role in the slaughter. More illegal ivory is seized at the Port of Houston than at any other U.S. port, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The task of cutting off the illegal ivory trade has has become so great in recent years that the department proposed a near-total ban on the commercial elephant ivory trade earlier this year.
A 1989 ban permitted antique ivory, judged to be over 100 years old, within the U.S. But experts say that rule is being routinely abused with new ivory from new kills is being passed off as old.
The proposed ban would ban all commercial ivory imports regardless of age. Non-commercial, sport-hunted trophies and scientific specimens would be permitted, along with traveling exhibitions, part of a family inheritance and in some older ivory musical instruments.
“With this film, Yao is helping to spread the word about the ecological and human costs of the illegal wildlife trade,” explains Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid. “We hope that with more public awareness and support, that China will become a true global leader in conservation and help save elephants and rhinos. We are pretty much in an emergency situation now.”
The film will be shown on Animal Planet this fall.