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BEIJING — As a shy, nervous 22-year-old NBA rookie, Yao Ming confronted the concentrated power of Shaquille O’Neal for the first time — and came out a winner.
Now, more than a decade later and long retired from the game, the former Houston Rocket faces a challenge perhaps as daunting as it is radically different: to wean the Chinese nation off its love of ivory, and save Africa’s dwindling elephant population.
In the past three years alone, about 100,000 elephants have been poached for their tusks, according to a new study: a mass slaughter propelled by an ever-rising Chinese demand for ivory from an ever-richer nation. Yet the player once nicknamed the “Great Wall of China” aims to stop that flood, through the power of persuasion.
The metaphors are perhaps too easy: basketball’s gentle giant aiming to save Africa’s gentle giants; the man who built a bridge between China and the United States now trying to bridge another vast cultural divide, between his nation’s nouveau riche and the people and animals of Africa.
The 7-foot, 6-inch Yao, 33, said in a recent interview that he had connected with Africa particularly because “many animals there are bigger than me.”
The former NBA star teamed up with the wildlife protection group WildAid to help publicize the loss of African elephants and rhinoceroses to poachers.
Yao visited Africa for the first time in 2012 to see for himself the raw reality of elephant and rhino poaching: a documentary shown in China in August and scheduled to be shown in the United States in November shows the usually impassive Yao choking back tears as he towers above an elephant’s rotting carcass, its face brutally ripped off to remove its tusks.
“Before that, 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.”
Yao’s transformation from basketball center to wildlife activist began in 2006, when he first met with staff members from WildAid, a San Francisco-based charity, during another injury-plagued season in the NBA. The activists soon 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 shark fin soup.
Since then, Yao has appeared in a string of commercials and made countless public appearances to ram home the bloody reality of the global shark-finning industry, to show his fellow citizens how Chinese demand has wiping out some of the ocean’s most elegant creatures, and to convince them that serving the dish at weddings and banquets is not a sign of sophistication but of ignorance.
Incredibly, implausibly, Yao and WildAid may have pulled it off. In part as a result of an anti-corruption campaign in which the costly delicacy was banned at government banquets, shark fin soup is falling out of fashion here. A WildAid study released in August showed prices and sales of shark fins in China down by 50 to 70 percent.
But the carving of ivory is perhaps an even more deeply rooted tradition in China, and as wealth has grown, so has the fashion for giving lavishly carved pieces to business associates and friends as gifts. Although China allows a small, legal trade in ivory from old stockpiles, this provides the cover for a vast, illegal trade that has fueled a new wave of poaching in Africa, experts say.
Such are the financial incentives that hundreds of poachers and rangers have died in gunfights. Global crime syndicates are intimately involved in the trade, while terrorist groups including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Somalia’s al-Shabab are thought to be profiting.
In February, the Obama administration moved to tighten the rules on ivory sales in the United States, one of the world’s largest markets. In June, New Jersey became the first U.S. state to agree on a complete ban. Yao and WildAid want China and the United States to follow suit, and for the world to reinstate the complete ban on ivory exports that was in place from 1989 to 1997. They also want renewed efforts to curb the trade in rhino horn.
It won’t be an easy sell. President Obama has to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association, which is concerned about the value of guns with ivory-inlaid handles, and China must halt a traditional carving trade that is thought to date back five millennia, and to tread on the toes of powerful vested interests.
“China is a rising economic country, more and more people are living in better economic conditions now, but we have to balance our desires,” Yao said. “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.”
If Yao was a natural basketball player, he is not such a natural on the global stage. But just as the quiet young man from China learned to survive in the NBA, and live under the constant demands of his celebrity, his will to win seems just as strong as ever. “I can’t lie to you, I am not a naturally outgoing person,” he said. “But I know one thing: I have a job, and I have to finish it.”
In some ways, Yao’s understated style is an advantage. No one questions his sincerity here, or his patriotism — a neat trick to pull off when fronting for an American charity lecturing the Chinese people on how to behave.
Yao’s parents were selected by Communist officials to play professional basketball because they were tall. According to one account , the pair were then brought together in the hope of producing a future star, as indeed they did.
Now Yao, who married a former national basketball player and has a 4-year-old daughter, takes a more protective view of family.
Even after retirement, he is mobbed everywhere he goes.
“I can’t hide,” he said. “I can’t put on dark glasses and walk out. That bothers me a little. I can’t go out with my kid too much because of my size. I love spending time with my kid.”
But if Yao finds peace with his family, he also found it in Africa, he said, and it is a peace he is striving to preserve through his work with WildAid.
“The peace wasn’t only from the animals but from the entire environment,” he said. “As people living in the modern world today, sometimes we are self-centered. We think we own a lot of stuff. Only when you stay over there, you feel, ‘Let’s go without our vehicle, let’s do without our cellphones.’ When you stay away from the city, when you watch the animals, you feel this is more natural.”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.