How Yao Ming appeased the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup

Former NBA star Yao Ming has helped curb the consumption of shark fin soup in China, simply by telling the Chinese public how it's made.

Jason Lee/Reuters
Former NBA player Yao Ming listens to a question at a news conference after he was selected for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Beijing, China, April 6, 2016.

Yao Ming has become a hero for both basketball fans and animal lovers alike.

The 7-foot-6 retired Chinese NBA player has partnered with WildAid for the last five years to help stem the demand for shark fin soup in his home country. Together, Yao and WildAid have raised awareness about the realities of a perceived delicacy and its impact on shrinking shark populations.

“People said it was impossible to change China, but the evidence we are now getting says consumption of shark fin soup in China is down by 50 to 70 percent in the last two years,” Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, told The Washington Post in 2013. And such a consumption decrease has continued in 2016. “It is a myth that people in Asia don’t care about wildlife. Consumption is based on ignorance rather than malice.”

When WildAid began its shark fin campaign in 2006, 75 percent of Chinese were unaware that shark fin soup actually involved sharks because the Mandarin translation is “fish wing soup.” Additionally, 19 percent believed the fins grew back.

Sharks need their fins to move, and sharks need to keep moving in order to breath. So when fishermen throw the fin-less shark back into the ocean – still alive – the animal often sinks to the bottom and dies of suffocation or starvation. 

But by bringing public awareness to the issue, one of China’s favorite celebrities has made Chinese consumers first pay attention and then change course. 

After playing with the Chinese pro-team, the Shanghai Sharks, as a teenager, Yao was selected by the Houston Rockets as the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. After playing eight seasons with the Rockets and reaching the NBA Playoffs four times, Yao retired in 2011.

For six years in a row, between 2004 and 2009, Forbes named Yao the top celebrity in China. And more than five years after his retirement, Yao remains a public icon in China and around the world. Yao was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in April. 

But Yao is no stranger to conservation activism.

Like shark fin soup, owning ivory was becoming a way for China’s growing middle class to showcase their wealth. And also like shark fin soup, Yao is working to change public perceptions about ivory. 

“To win this battle against poaching, we need multiple approaches,” Yao told The Monitor in 2012 while visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. “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 the elephants will stop dying.”

WildAid’s campaign against shark finning has realized its campaign slogan “when the buying stops, the killing can too.” When Chinese were again surveyed in 2013, 91 percent of those surveyed said they would support a nationwide shark fin ban. And while the Chinese government has not gone this far to protect sharks, they did make shark fin consumption illegal at all official banquets.

And 82 percent of respondents said they stopped consuming shark fin soup as a direct result of Yao’s awareness campaign.

“Now it’s something almost shameful for young middle-class people to eat,” Yao told The Monitor. “And I think that shark fin is harder to ban than ivory because there is a huge business chain involved whose living relied on shark fin, from fishing to shipping to sales, and many people buy it. That’s not the same with ivory.” 

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