Here in the United States, most people who think of Yao Ming probably associate him with being a shot-blocking, slam-dunking machine on the NBA hard court. He’s was an eight-time All-Star selection and three-time Olympian for China’s national hoops team, and earlier this year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside American icons Shaquille O’Neal and Alan Iverson.
Ming retired from pro basketball in 2011, but about half way through his career he started channeling his influence as a global sports superstar toward a cause with global eco-health ramifications: wildlife preservation. In Ming’s native China, shark fin soup has historically been viewed as a delicacy, a dish reserved only for the elite who could afford it. But the rise of China’s middle class has lead to an exponential increase in demand for the menu item as more people are able afford it.
This has all contributed to sharp declines in the global shark population, as millions are hunted down every year to be stripped of their fins and often left to drown or bleed out in the ocean. To combat this problem, Ming (who played for six seasons with the Shanghai Sharks basketball team) partnered with the organization WildAid in 2006 to educate Chinese citizens about where their coveted shark fins were coming from and to connect the status symbol dish with the reality of animal extinction.
The slogan of the campaign is a direct attack on the practice: “when the buying stops, the killing can too,” and since its debut during the 2008 Beijing Olympics the positive results have been staggering. According to WildAid, the amount of shark fin being traded in the Hong Kong dropped from around 22 million pounds in 2011 to just around 11 million pounds in 2013. Decreased demand for the product, spurred by a downturn in public sentiment, has also forced prices of shark fins down by huge margins in locations like Guangzhou, China—a known shark fin trading hub—and across Indonesia. If you take away the consumer base, the hope is that the business will collapse on itself with no one to buy the product.
And Ming’s collaboration with WildAid has been so effective—a study in China from 2013 showed that 91 percent of responders supported a government ban on trading shark fins—that the organization expanded the campaign to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2015, and Ming has expanded his personal advocacy agenda, too. At the end of last year Ming was featured in an Animal Plant documentary called “Saving Africa’s Giants” about the dire effects of global ivory trade on elephant and rhinoceros populations. While that is certainly a global problem, China is crucial player in the conservation movement, as demand in the country for ivory product is massive.
Ming is a beloved figure in his home country, and the fact that he has been able to spark such massive social change in China speaks to the necessity of our icons taking up the mantle of advocates. Someone who carries their delegation’s flag twice into the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games has the public on their side, and rallying the people—aka, the consumers—is the surest way to make markets shape up if the mission is conservation.
Ming was an All-Star as a professional basketball player, but it turns out he’s an even bigger All-Star as an activist.