NBA star turned animal activist, Yao Ming is now working to protect our elephants. His mission? To turn public opinion on ivory, in his home land of China and around the world, from elitist to socially unacceptable.
It can be tough to fit in. Especially when you are 7’6”. But Yao Ming found his sweet spot on the basketball court where he had a massive fan following in both the US and China. Now he’s a hero off the court, taking to the African bush to aid in banishment of the ivory trade.
That’s right. Yao’s goal is to make the sale and purchase of ivory “socially unacceptable”.
Known as The Gentle Giant in his basketball days, Yao has said he was first drawn to Africa because many of the animals there are bigger than him. It seems more than the physical similarities, it is his big heart that has moved him toward this mission.
Humans have killed 4.5 million elephants in the past 60 years. Over 20,000 elephants died last year alone, along with more than 1,000 rhinos. At this rate it is estimated that these two species could be extinct within the next ten years. Can you imagine your kids or grandkids living in a world without these animals?
In his documentary on the illegal elephant poaching and ivory trade, “Saving Africa’s Giants” which aired on November 18 on Animal Planet, Yao visits Africa to bring the message back home. The people there have no idea he is a mega star in his country. They do, however, share his love of basketball. And his mission to abolish the ivory trade. As he shoots hoops with the locals, one man explains how elephants used to pass through their village regularly. Now they are scarce. Instead roaming further away, scared, skittish and stressed out. Many with bullet holes in their bodies. He says this rampant poaching is killing not only their beautiful elephants, but their economy and their heritage.
These gentle giants are being destroyed for their tusks. Ivory is big business and demand is at an all time high. The highest since the beginning of the ivory ban in 1989. And China is the largest consumer. Once a symbol of wealth and power, the newly wealthier middle class has taken to collecting ivory too. But are they thinking about where it comes from in the first place?
In order to harvest ivory the animals must be killed. The ivory never falls off naturally or is taken from a living animal. Don’t let anyone selling ivory tell you otherwise.
Those doing the killing? Illegal poachers. And these are not the back alley renegades we may once have thought. Poachers of today are organized groups with serious ammo, night vision goggles, and the support of many parties throughout the world. An ivory mafia, of sorts.
The gangs, who move quickly and usually at night, spray the herds with automatic weapons hoping to kill a large elephant. Often babies are killed in these rampages, left to die for no reason. Once larger elephants are killed, their faces are crudely chopped off with axes and taken away. Their bodies litter the African landside.
Systems to defeat poaching have done little to no good in the past. So Yao is implementing a new idea…go to the source. He feels this fight should be fought in the marketplace. This means in Chinese trade rather than the fields of Africa. In order to make a difference in the senseless killing of these remarkable animals, the demand for ivory must cease.
Elephants, aside from being beautiful creatures, are emotional mammals. They live in families, love, and mourn. They also have personalities and look out for one another. They are not only becoming extinct but severely traumatized by this senseless carnage.
Elephant herds are led by a matriarch who knows where to go for food and water, and which areas are safe or should be avoided. Once these matriarchs have been taken from the herd by poachers, babies are left to themselves. When a family member dies the remaining elephants gather round the fallen animal, touching the body with their tusks and feet. This is a mourning period where the elephant family says goodbye to their lost member.
While in Africa, Yao and crew watched one elephant family who was left with only one female. The rest had been killed for their tusks. This last female, whose tusks were very long, showed visible scarring by poachers. She’d been treated three times by the local organization. It is likely only a matter of time before she is destroyed too, her family left to fend for themselves.
“If we buy ivory it makes all of us killers as well,” says Ming. He hopes the documentary shows those at home in China, and around the world, the realities of the ivory trade. When you see the carcass of a young elephant, face missing and life needlessly ended, it makes that ivory trinket seem absolutely pointless and ridiculous.
This past February, the Obama administration tightened the rules on the sale of ivory in the US. Vendors must prove that the ivory they are trying to sell was imported before the 1989 ban. Antique ivory is also exempted with proof of age, and no ivory sales are allowed across state lines.
Conservation groups feel any restrictions on the sale of ivory will help to end illegal poaching. Yao Ming backs them up and is doing what he can to send this message to the people of his country and around the world.
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Image by Tambako the Jaguar at Flickr.com