HOUSTON (AP) — 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.