Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball player who played in the NBA for the Houston Rockets, wants to help stop elephant and rhinoceros poaching.

As a goodwill ambassador to WildAid, a nonprofit dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trading, Yao took a trip to Kenya last month in August, where he spent several days interacting with wildlife officials and seeing some of the effects of poaching firsthand.

Yao Ming meets Najin and Suni, two of the world’s remaining seven Northern White Rhinos, four of which are located at The Ol Pejeta Conservancy. (Kristian Schmidt for WildAid) (Kristian Schmidt for WildAid/WILDAID)

( See more images from Yao Ming’s trip to Kenya. )

With an estimated 400,000 elephants remaining in Africa, conservation activists are pushing hard to prevent poaching for ivory tusks. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 2011 saw the highest volume of illegal ivory seized.

We asked Yao Ming a few questions about his new initiative. Here are his responses, which were sent to us via WildAid, in an e-mail:

How did you come to become interested in protecting rhinos and elephants?

I like animals and I’m keen on spending more time on wildlife protection initiatives. For the past few years, I’ve cooperated with WildAid on several activities in a joint effort to protect sharks and other forms of wildlife. Before going to Africa, compassionate public figures like Jackie Chan wanted me to take an interest in elephant and rhino conservation. Having also seen some related news coverage, I came to feel that I have a responsibility to act and to do something for wildlife conservation work in Africa.

What was the most powerful memory from your recent trip to Kenya?

The living conditions for the local Kenyans left me with a really deep impression. Even though their lives are relatively primitive, they are closely connected to the animals of the natural world and to the plants and even to the land and the rivers – and they live on, coexisting pretty harmoniously. Getting along with the local Kenyans over the past few days has given me a deep understanding of this incredible sense of awe and devotion that they hold for nature – and that’s something I had never ever felt before

China is the world’s most prominent destination for distribution and use of rhino horn and ivory. What’s the message you’re taking home to convince the Chinese to stop massive consumption of illegal wildlife parts?

There’s no way you can deny that rhino horn has definite medicinal value in traditional medical practice, both in China and around Southeast Asia. At the same time, elephant ivory products are prized as a collector’s item all around the globe. But let’s face it: we’re not talking about irreplaceable necessities here. According to the local Africans, a century ago, it was the Europeans and Americans who valued Africa as a big bazaar for animal wildlife products. So in those days, the main forces driving the slaughter of African rhinos and elephants came from market demands in Europe and the U.S. Later on, with the rise of environmental awareness, social approval of this kind of consumption gradually tapered off. But in the past decade, we’ve started to see a rising demand in Southeast Asia and in China for valuable animal wildlife products. Motivated by huge economic factors, illegal poaching in Africa is on the rise too – and I really wish this wasn’t happening. The Chinese government banned the illegal rhino horn and elephant ivory trades way back in 1993, but as it turned out, the prohibition only served to stimulate a price spike for these products on the black market. The most effective thing you can do to counter this kind of situation is raise people’s awareness. Eliminate the demand for rhino horn and ivory right at the source. That’s what I want to do. It might take some time, sure, but I’m really hoping that gradually we cam start to see an improvement.

See photographs from Yao Ming’s trip below (All images courtesy of WildAid).

View Photo Gallery: Yao Ming teamed up with the wildlife protection group WildAid to help publicize the loss of African elephants and rhinoceroses to poachers. He called the sight of slain animals “a harrowing experience I never want to repeat, but something that everyone thinking of buying ivory should see.”

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