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.