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Yao Ming May Have Saved the African Elephant, But Can Jackie Chan Save the Pangolin?

We are alive during the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Let that sink in, reader. Earth is currently losing species at its highest rate since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, thousands of times greater than the natural rate estimated by the Center for Biological Diversity. Last year, we lost the northern white rhino; in the last three years alone, we lost half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef; and by mid-century, we could lose up to half of all of world’s species!

Could lose half. Emphasis on could. Because unlike the past mass extinctions caused by volcanic eruptions or asteroids, this one is our own doing, according to the United Nations and everyone else with any sense. From polluting the land, sea, and air, to destroying natural habitats like the rainforest for activities like industrial agriculture, modern civilization is kept on life support by mass resource consumption – i.e. the mass extinction of Earth’s other life – in a way so entrenched that no one person, no Climate Change Jesus, can reverse. Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio, who released a documentary on this very subject two weeks before the 2016 election, what impact this had on voters.

But seemingly, there is one facet of harmful human activity that the world is beginning to galvanize against: poaching.

Enter Yao Ming, the 7’5” Chinese-born hall-of-fame basketball player. In 2012, one year after retiring from the NBA, Yao traveled to the savanna to learn more about the slaughter of species like the African elephant for their ivory tusks, and in 2014, released his findings in partnership with WildAid in a documentary called “The End of the Wild.” At the time, demand for ivory, particularly in China, was rising to such a degree, for items like high-end chopsticks and other various luxuries, that it was feared that African elephants would be extinct by 2020. Imagine that: a world in which the African elephant we all know and love goes extinct before the end of Trump’s presidency!

But incredibly, the world is changing its course, led by Yao’s China. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an agreement with Barack Obama to pursue an end to the ivory trade, and on January 1, 2018, a full ban on ivory trading in China went into effect. Early results of the ban, according to the World Wildlife Foundation and National Geographic, have been encouraging. So too was the mere threat of a ban, since much of ivory’s inherent value is in its ability to be re-sold; in the year leading up to the ban, the price of raw ivory in China fell by 65%.

Even with President Trump reneging on his country’s agreement, lifting Obama-era ivory bans at the behest of the gun and hunting lobbies, the impact of China’s ivory ban on elephant survival, and Yao’s impact on Chinese policy – as one of China’s, and the world’s, most influential environmental ambassadors – is undeniable, and undeniably good. Furthermore, WildAid and Yao, together, have made additional progress changing public opinion in Vietnam. And in the clearest sign to date that China’s stance is emboldening others, even beyond Asia, the United Kingdom just passed its own total ivory trade ban at the end of last year.

Of course, despite these ivory bans, the status of the African elephant remains tenuous at best. Even in the best-case anti-poaching scenario, where every country adopts ivory bans and more strictly enforces poaching bans, climate change and the expansion of human settlements will continue to threaten the natural habitats of elephants and all life on Earth. But in the short-term, at least, there’s no doubt that a world with elephants is a world worth fighting for, and that without them, the world would be worth a little less.

So let us all come together, at this critical juncture in the history of life on earth, and listen, with not just compassion but also a sense of real responsibility, to what Jackie Chan has to say about those cute little pangolins – the “most heavily-trafficked wild mammal” in the world.

"When the buying stops, the killing can too."




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