Yao Ming fed a giraffe, petted a rhino and watched an elephant do a headstand during a visit to the Houston Zoo on Thursday.
The former Houston Rockets center, in town in advance of this weekend's All-Star festivities, has become increasingly active in animal-rights causes since he retired from basketball because of repeated injuries in July 2011.
Late in his playing career, Yao became a vocal — and the most famous — critic of shark-fin soup, a centuries-old delicacy in China. He began actively campaigning in 2006 against "finning" by fishermen — carving off the shark's valuable fins and dumping their bodies back in the ocean, sometimes while the shark is still alive.
Before he walked around the zoo with about two dozen children, Yao filmed a public service announcement promoting his shark-fin cause with former Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo and current Houston point guard Jeremy Lin.
Yao has now started campaigning against elephant and rhino poaching in Africa and Asia. He'll star in a documentary on the subject, based on his visit to Kenya last summer, that is scheduled to be released in China toward the end of 2013.
"It's not as simple as just 'protect this planet, protect those animals,'" Yao said. "In the end, it's 'protect ourselves.' We know the cycle we have on this planet — it's one species down and there's another one after that, and after that and after that. At the end of the day, we're on that cycle as well."
An eight-time All-Star, Yao became a global icon when he played, leading the expansion of the NBA's appeal through Asia. His worldwide popularity has proven to be a highly effective platform for his animal-conservation efforts, as well, said Peter Knights, the executive director of the San Francisco-based conservation group WildAid.
"He is not only the biggest star in China, he's also the most respected star," Knights said. "He's now the face of conservation and he's literally changing a generation in China."
Yao is gratified by the progress he's seen.
Last summer, the Chinese government announced it would remove shark-fin soup from the menus of government banquets over the next three years and high-end restaurants have started replacing shark-fin soup with a substitute made with gelatin, starch and seaweed. Last month, the South China Morning Post reported that census data from Hong Kong shows that imports of shark fins dropped from 10,292 tons in 2011 to 3,087 tons in 2012.
"The numbers show the payback for the effort that everybody has put in," Yao said. "It showed that it was very effective."
Yao talked to children as he petted one of the zoo's southern white rhinos. Poachers in Africa and Asia chop off the rhino's horns and sell them. The horns are ground into powder and then sold for various medicinal purposes, including as a hangover cure. The ivory elephant tusks, Knights said, are cut off in a similar manner, sold and used mostly for ornamental uses.
Yao is hoping to increase awareness for his causes in the United States and wants to start by making an impression on the younger generation.
"You have little pets in your house — dogs, cats, all kinds," Yao said. "Just imagine your relationship with your pets. That's the same thing, the same kind of thing, that the African people have with those big animals. They're living in the same country, just like in the same house.
"We want to show them examples, as a first stage, how animals look and how beautiful they are," he said. "Our hope in the future that they'll not only see the animals in the zoo, but hopefully in the wild."
Yao said his involvement with animal conservation is separate from his foundation, which he launched in 2008 to help rebuild schools in the wake of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. Yao said the foundation last year set up a youth basketball league for the affected schools.