No One Kills Elephants If No One Buys Ivory, So Yao Ming Asks China to Stop

In an Animal Planet special, the former NBA star highlights how his home country’s demand for horns and tusks leads to mass elephant slaughter.

(Photo: Kristian Schmidt/WildAid)

Nov 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Black-market ivory sellers may not be hanging out on the corner waiting for a junkie to walk by, but the war against poachers has something in common with the war on drugs: supply and demand. So if we can change the attitudes and habits of people in China who buy horns and tusks as status symbols and for superstitious “medical” uses, the poaching of rhinos and elephants on the African continent will stop. That’s the takeaway of the hour-long Animal Planet special Saving Africa’s Giants With Yao Ming, which airs Tuesday night.

The program, which was shown on television in China in August, follows the 7'6" Shanghai native as he heads to Kenya, where 25,000 African elephants were murdered for their tusks in 2013. Yao then travels to South Africa, where he visits an orphanage for baby rhinos, the living victims of the poaching epidemic. Two adult rhinos a day are slaughtered in that country for their horns. The program also shows Yao’s horrified reaction to the carcasses of recently poached animals that the production team happened across during filming.

“You know, the poacher sometimes is doing this just to live,” the NBA star turned wildlife advocate said last week during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything." “And it can be very easy to tell them, ‘Don’t poach anymore.’ But you have to consider, what are they doing to live? So the entire chain needs to be changed. From the beginning, we have to stop the buying.”

Yao, one of the most popular celebrities in China, first began turning the spotlight on poaching in 2012. That’s when he teamed up with WildAid, an organization working to reduce the global demand for poached products. He’s since become the face of the massive “Say No to Ivory” advertising campaign in his country. Billboards and advertisements educating the public about poaching can now be found in Chinese airports and subways and along the nation’s city streets.

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, accompanied Yao to Africa. Knights told NPR’s Morning Edition that ensuring people are aware of what happens to the rhinos and elephants targeted by poachers is the key.

“People are buying ivory thinking that the elephants died of natural causes, and they’re not causing any problems,” he said. “It’s a lot about education, and it’s a lot about fashion, so we’re trying to change societal attitudes to these things.”

As for arresting our way out of the problem (or going naked for a fund-raising calendar, as some park rangers have done), Knights doesn’t believe antipoaching enforcement efforts will make the guys with guns and tranquilizer darts go away.

“If the demand is still strong, all we are doing is escalating the war,” he said. “What we want to do is defund this war. And that means winning hearts and minds in Asia to not purchase these products.”

It's a noble goal, but if it doesn't succeed fast enough, we may wish we had sent in the Marines: At least one species of rhino numbers below a dozen in the wild, and one of the largest populations of elephants, in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, fell by two-thirds in just four years because of poaching.

According to Knights, Yao’s wildlife activism has already reduced Chinese demand for shark fins, which are used to make shark fin soup, by 50 to 70 percent over the past two years. Let’s hope that when viewers of the Animal Planet film find out that poachers cut the faces off of elephants to get their tusks, they recognize that, as Yao frequently says, “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”