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Using Chinese star power to fight ivory poaching in Africa

The biggest demand for ivory is in China, so conservationists are trying to give Chinese consumers a greater understanding of poaching – with the help of Chinese celebrities like Yao Ming.

By Correspondent / August 28, 2012

Former NBA star Yao Ming visits an elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. The former athlete is urging his fellow Chinese to stop purchasing ivory products.

William Davies/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Nairobi, Kenya

It's a little after sunrise on a chilly Friday morning, and one of the world's tallest living men, former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, stands towering over a 10-day-old baby elephant called Kinango.

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With a red-and-black checked blanket over his back to ward off the cold, Kinango playfully head-butts the 7 ft. 6 in. former NBA player's legs, barely reaching his knees.

"It's hard to think something so small will grow up to be so big," Mr. Yao says, fully aware of the self-effacing humor in his words.

Sadly, it is once again far from certain that Kinango, whose mother was killed by poachers and who is now cared for at Nairobi's elephant orphanage, will grow to full size and live an elephant's full life of many decades.

Rising demand among China's newly wealthy middle class has seen the price of ivory triple in five years.

Seizures of smuggled African tusks have doubled in less than a year, to more than 23 tons in 2011, signaling the death of perhaps 4,500 elephants. There are only an estimated 400,000 left in Africa.

The crisis, the like of which has not been seen since the 1980s, has conservationists thinking again about how to stop the slaughter.

And they have come up with some clever new approaches, based on the simple mathematics of economics: Remove the demand for ivory, and you cut the supply.

The supply still comes from Africa – from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The biggest demand, now, by far, is in China.

That is why Yao, China's best-known sportsman, who carried his country's flag into the Bird's Nest stadium at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is in Kenya, filming a documentary about poaching.

Harnessing star power

He is one of a dozen of China's most famous actors, athletes, talk-show hosts, and musicians lending their names to recent conservation campaigns inside their homeland.

Many are directed by WildAid, a charity based in San Francisco, which uses slick television advertisements featuring these superstars and the simple slogan, "When the buying stops, the killing will too."

Such ads are now common on Chinese television. Anti-poaching posters with similar slogans fill billboards in Chinese cities, including one hoisted above a subway station serving Guangzhou city's famous Ivory Street.

"To win this battle against poaching, we need multiple approaches," Yao told the Monitor during his visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which runs the elephant orphanage.

"What I am trying to do is to raise people's awareness, to show them the reality of the ivory business. When the killing of elephants happens 10,000 miles away from you, it's easy to hide yourself from that truth. If we show people, they will stop buying ivory. Then elephants will stop dying."

Time is short, but with the involvement of global figures like Yao, it may not be too late, says Elodie Sampere, head of conservation marketing at Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy in central Kenya.

"I don't think any other celebrity has the kind of pull that he has, both East and West, and the awareness he'll raise I think cannot be beaten," she says.

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