Last year, 33,000 African elephants were slaughtered for their ivory tusks. In Kenya, the black rhino population that was once 23,000 strong now numbers 600. In South Africa, two rhinos die every day at the hand of poachers. There are laws in place to protect the animals, but local governments have proved powerless to enforce them, and rangers on the ground are outfoxed and outgunned by black marketers — and many rangers have died on the job. The situation is dire. If nothing changes, these species will become extinct.

But as the new Animal Planet documentary "Saving Africa's Giants With Yao Ming" depicts, there's a collaborative global effort to cut off the poachers' revenue stream by curtailing demand, focusing on China, the largest market for ivory and rhino horn, which is prized for purported medicinal properties that don’t even exist.

Yao Ming, who is best known for his work on the basketball court, has put his celebrity influence to good use as the face of a campaign launched by WildAid to raise awareness about the poaching crisis. For the special, which premieres on Nov. 18, Yao traveled to Africa to witness the problem firsthand, spending time with orphaned baby elephants and rhinos that had lost their parents to poachers, visiting a storehouse of confiscated ivory, and seeing mutilated rhinos, missing their horns, but still alive. It's something he'll never forget.

"I got involved with WildAid in 2006 to decrease consumption of shark fin soup," Yao says. "We've made some real progress on that front. Shark fin prices in China have dropped by 50-70 percent in the last two years." When he learned that WildAid works to save elephants and rhinos from poachers, "I wanted to get involved in those projects too. Wild Aid helped set up a trip to Africa in 2013. That trip changed my life.

"Before, it was more of a number for me…too abstract. When I visited Africa, it became very real to me," Yao explains. "I developed a special connection with the animals that I met. I got to see these amazing creatures out in the wild and even got to meet some of them. I fed an orphan elephant formula from a bottle. He was only 2 weeks old and had lost his mother to poaching. She was killed for her ivory tusks. Later, when I toured the underground bunker where Kenyan police store the 3 million tons of ivory that they have confiscated, it really drove the point home."

He's troubled that as China's economy has grown, "so has its market for ivory. I'm doing what I can with WildAid to raise awareness there through billboards, PSAs, talking to the media and doing public appearances. But, it's a global issue, and we all have a role to play. China, the U.S., Europe and countries like Vietnam need to unite to reduce demand and end the poaching crisis," says Yao, who has become a committed conservationist.

"Growing up, I was mostly interested in basketball. Most Chinese people didn't really understand where ivory came from, that so many elephants were being poached for their tusks. That's why raising awareness is so important and can have such a big impact. Later, I became more interested in wildlife conservation. I remember seeing the ads that Jackie Chan did about saving tigers. Jackie was a hero to my generation, and those ads made a big impact on me. We've made real progress: shark fin sales are down in China's main market by 50-70 percent. I hope we can do the same thing for ivory and rhino horn."

Yao Ming gazes at piles of confiscated ivory tusks

Yao Ming gazes at piles of confiscated ivory tusks.

More than just elephants to save

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, offers additional insight to the issue. "Rhino horn has been banned in China for use in traditional Chinese medicine and removed from the official Chinese pharmacopoeia. But it's still sold on the black market as both an aphrodisiac and a fever reducer. The real problem is in Vietnam, which is now the principal market for rhino horn. Cancer diagnoses have increased in the country, and there is a shortage of radiotherapy machines. Rhino horn is being marketed as a cancer cure, so a rhino still ends up dead for its horn.

"Others in Vietnam grind the horn and use it as a party drug, and that obviously has to stop as well. It's amazing the powers to which people ascribe what is essentially the same substance found in powdered fingernails," Knights continues. "We surveyed Chinese consumers in 2012 when we started this campaign, and we found that only about one-third of respondents were aware that elephants and rhinos are poached for their tusks and horns. We obviously have our work cut out for us."

Yao Ming bottle feeds a baby elephantKnights is encouraged by the headway Yao has made against shark finning. "We surveyed in China last year and found that 85 percent of the Chinese consumers said that they had given up shark fin soup within the last two years. We think Yao can do the same for elephants and rhinos." TV and print ads are running in the wake of the special’s summer premiere there. "Enforcement alone isn't going to save Africa's remaining rhinos and elephants; we need a combination of demand reduction and stronger government action," Knights says. Now that Yao is "stepping up to help reduce consumer demand for ivory and rhino horn, China and other governments can also be heroes by enacting stricter bans and doing a better job funding demand reduction efforts."

Yao hopes that viewers "will watch it and understand how critical it is that we put an end to the ivory trade. We all share this planet with each other and with these majestic animals. We all have a responsibility to do something to save Africa's elephants and rhinos. I hope I can use my celebrity to convince more people in China and the United States to be ivory-free so the market and the demand for ivory and rhino horn disappear. We all have to do our part, and I'm trying to do mine. These are not only amazing creatures; they also are an important part of Africa's ecosystem. It's tragic that these animals are among the last of their kind and are being killed for no good reason.

"People don't need ivory. It's a luxury item, one that is shameful to own once you know an elephant died for it. Same with rhino horn: people take it as medicine, but it’s as medically beneficial as chewing on your fingernails," Yao points out. "It's a global problem, but we can all be part of the solution by not buying it, and telling others not to buy it either. Go to Ivory Free and take the pledge to never buy or own ivory. Because when the buying stops, the killing can too."

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