Since retiring from the Houston Rockets in 2011, basketball player Yao Ming has set his sights on some impressive new goals -– this time without a net.
Ming, a native of Shanghai, China, has vowed to put an end to the ivory tusk trade in his home country to stave off the endangered African elephant’s path to extinction.
To bring his mission to the masses, Ming, 33, traveled to Africa with the WildAid foundation to document the poaching crisis for a new documentary, “The End of the Wild.”
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, the long-time animal rights activist opened up about his heartbreaking journey to Kenya and South Africa.
“Before that [journey], 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.”
Ivory has long been used for lavish gifts, including jewelry, guns, and sculptures; in China, ivory carving dates back centuries.
But the ivory trade continues to decimate the world's elephant population. Demand for the rare material risen in China along with the country's growing wealthy class; the price of ivory has tripled in China over the last four years.
It’s estimated that each year, 30,000 elephants are killed for their ivory tusks, according to WildAid.
“The Chinese hold the key to the elephants’ future,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, told the New York Times last year. “If things continue the way they are, many countries could lose their elephants altogether.”
Ming originally partnered with WildAid in 2006 for a different animal-rights crisis. He campaigned with the group in China against the killing of an estimated 1.5 million sharks every week for shark fin soup, a delicacy, according to the Associated Press. Sales have since fallen between 50 and 70 percent, the Washington Post reports, thanks in part to a ban on serving shark fin soup at government banquets.
Now, Ming is hoping people in his home country will once again open their eyes to another animal cruelty. In addition to the documentary, his "Say No To Ivory" campaign has also involved television ads, billboards, and petitioning the Chinese government to ban ivory sales.
“China is a rising economic country. More and more people are living in better economic conditions now, but we have to balance our desires,” Ming told the Post. “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.”