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Using Chinese star power to fight ivory poaching in Africa

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Many are directed by WildAid, a charity based in San Francisco, which uses slick television advertisements featuring these superstars and the simple slogan, "When the buying stops, the killing will too."

Such ads are now common on Chinese television. Anti-poaching posters with similar slogans fill billboards in Chinese cities, including one hoisted above a subway station serving Guangzhou city's famous Ivory Street.

"To win this battle against poaching, we need multiple approaches," Yao told the Monitor during his visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which runs the elephant orphanage.

"What I am trying to do is to raise people's awareness, to show them the reality of the ivory business. When the killing of elephants happens 10,000 miles away from you, it's easy to hide yourself from that truth. If we show people, they will stop buying ivory. Then elephants will stop dying."

Time is short, but with the involvement of global figures like Yao, it may not be too late, says Elodie Sampere, head of conservation marketing at Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy in central Kenya.

"I don't think any other celebrity has the kind of pull that he has, both East and West, and the awareness he'll raise I think cannot be beaten," she says.

"Now is the time for this kind of thing. It's increasingly difficult to find the poachers on the ground. They used to go out with bows and arrows and machetes. Now they have automatic weapons and night-vision goggles."

Traditionally, the fight against poachers has been carried out by rangers patrolling Africa's savannas and forests, and by sniffer dogs and customs officials scouring its air- and seaports.

Both have had success, but both are expensive and do little to address the dictates of economics that rule that, like narcotics, if there's a demand, there will be a supplier.

"As a movement we're putting a minuscule amount of money into reducing the demand compared to preventing the poaching," says Peter Knights, WildAid's executive director.

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