Yao witnessed the brutal extent of wild animal poaching first-hand when he visited Africa in 2012. He agreed to become the face of WildAid’s anti-poaching campaign to help spread the word about the continent’s rapidly dwindling elephant and rhino populations. Yao, who is originally from Shanghai, hopes the documentary will have a strong impact on his home country.
Chinese demand for ivory is considered a driving force behind the rise in African poaching. The ivory trade is highly regulated, but the material holds a prominent place in traditional Chinese culture and ivory works of art are considered status symbols and even given as gifts in potential business deals. Because of this, fresh ivory has tripled in value on the black market, fetching about $750 in 2010 and up to $2,100 today.
This ivory is harvested from elephants in what is believed to be an annual $188 million illegal industry, resulting in 20,000 elephants killed every year. The poaching has increased to such a degree that Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington has predicted that large groups of elephants could go extinct by 2020. “If the trend continues,” he says, “there won’t be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them.”
China also leads the world in consumption of endangered animal parts, such as powdered rhino horn. According to WildAid, this appetite has contributed to the loss of 95 percent of the world’s rhinos over the last 40 years.
“Why [are] those guys after those animals?” Yao said in an interview with CNN. “It’s all because there’s a market in here. The money is making people turn to the dark side, to doing something terrible, like what I saw [in Africa].”
Yao has previously worked with WildAid to encourage Chinese to eat less shark fin soup, which has driven the widespread overfishing and mutilation of sharks. According to Yao, the campaign has helped drive down the price of shark fin soup by almost 50 percent, decreasing its position as a status symbol among newly middle-class Chinese and resulting in reduced demand for shark fins.
“We have to understand, we share this world with all living things on this planet,” Yao says in the new documentary. “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”