"Endangered species are our friends," basketballer Yao Ming said at a news conference organised by the London-based conservation group WildAid.

 

The group said China is the world's biggest importer of shark's fins, which conservationists say are cut from sharks that are thrown back into the ocean to die slow and agonising death.

 

"As the human population increases, many wildlife species are decreasing, and the primary reason is that humans fail to treat animals as friends," said Yao, who played for the Shanghai

Sharks basketball team before moving to the Houston Rockets in America’s NBA.

 

WildAid said the UN estimates that more than 100 million sharks are caught annually for fins and other body parts.

 

"China alone can save the sharks," said Steve Trent, president of WildAid. "If sharks are to survive we need to see a decline in shark fin consumption and new actions by government to control imports and consumption."

 

Shark-fin imports

 

Accurate figures on China's shark-fin imports are hard to obtain but TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group, says Hong Kong imported 11,662 tons of dried shark fin in 2003, most of which was shipped to mainland China

 

Shark's fin soup is considered a
delicacy in China 

Yao will also appear in a wildlife protection advertising campaign for other animals.

 

A television commercial shown at Yao's news conference features the 2.16 metre centre jumping up from a basketball court to block a bullet fired at an elephant.

 

Gymnast Li Ning and musician Liu Huan signed a petition with Yao supporting wildlife protection.

 

"When I think of the string of events that lead to a bowl of  sharks fin soup - such as the cruelty towards sharks, the struggling finless sharks (being) wiped out from our planet due to human greed - I don't know how to face myself," Li, an Olympic gold medallist, said.