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NAIROBI - China's celebrated sportsman Yao Ming was the star guest at a media conference where he warmed the heart of his audience that included journalists and conservationists.
The 2.26-meter former NBA star with the Houston Rockets is in Kenya for a conservancy mission against elephant and rhino poaching where he is filming a feature-length documentary on the subject.
Many marveled at his imposing strong and powerful frame as they posed for photographs and engaged him in banter. Others sought after his signature.
"It is a wonderful experience away from the hotel room to go to sleep at night and wake up at sunrise amid animals in the wilderness," Yao said on Thursday who is on his visit to Kenya, the first ever made on the African continent.
Former Chinese NBA player and WildAid Ambassador Yao Ming stands behind the carcass of an elephant in Namunyak, some 350 kilometers north of the capital, Nairobi, Kenya, Aug 13, 2012. [Photo/Xinhua]
Yao is in the East African nation to film a feature-length documentary called The End of the Wild, to experience the beauty and economic importance of wildlife tourism and to learn how this is threatened by the current elephant and rhino poaching crisis.
"The first thing I do upon waking up is to shake my shoes to ensure there are no scorpions in them before I put them on," he joked.
But he didn't just follow the tourist trail, he also went behind the scenes to learn directly from top scientists in the field about the secret lives of elephants and rhinos.
"It is sad to see the elephant being poached. Animals on the planet will live and die but they should not die in that manner."
Yao told journalists in Nairobi on Thursday night that public awareness should be increased in China that for every ornament one wears, however small, it means an elephant has lost a life.
He said China took steps in curbing the poaching menace in 1989, when the country banned illegal trade in ivory, adding that dozens of people have been punished by life sentences for engaging in the practice.
"It is unfortunate that the elephant population has been decreasing over the years and I am glad that I have been making my contribution by working with wildlife bodies since 2006," said Yao, who confessed that despite his love for animals, he only keeps a small dog for a pet.
Director of Kenya Wildlife Services Julius Kipng'etich said the plight of the elephant has brought together Kenya and China, which he described as good friends, in seeking ways of ending the poaching menace.
"It is only the elephant that should wear ivory. When there is no market, there will be no supply. We share many things in common concerning the elephant, so let the elephant not separate us," Kipng'etich said.
"After killing all the elephants, where are you going to get new ivory? Why should you kill a 6-7 ton animal just for a small piece of ivory? Wearing ivory will lead to the extinction of the elephant," he implored.
Executive Director of WildAid Peter Knight said by banning trade in illegal ivory in 1989, China indicated to the world that it is listening to what people are saying.
Yao also visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where four of the world's remaining seven northern white rhino are under 24-hour protection.
He also witnessed the operations of anti-poaching patrollers willing to put their lives on the line as they engage in gunfights with poachers.
As a WildAid ambassador, Yao has been educating and imploring the Chinese public to stop the purchase of shark fin and his latest mission is to show how to support rhino, elephant and wildlife conservation instead of contributing to their extinction.
Former Chinese NBA player and WildAid Ambassador Yao Ming caresses a leopard at Kenyan Wildlife Service in Kenya, Aug 16. [Photo/Xinhua]