Thousands of dogs, many of them stolen pets, were slaughtered during the weekend's dog-meat eating festival in the southwestern Chinese region of Guangxi in spite of a global campaign to save them, activists said.
The annual June 21 festival, which is largely commercial in origin, has been the focus of repeated petitions and social media campaigns from within China and around the world since last year calling on authorities in Guangxi's Yulin city to ban it.
"[The] dogs are captured and transported over long distances under horrific conditions to Yulin," the Humane Society International said in a petition on its website.
"There, they’re held in crowded cages without food or water until they are killed," it said. "Often, they are beaten and their throats are slit in front of other terrified animals."
It added: "Most Chinese citizens reject this practice, and we’re committed to supporting them in changing their laws."
A Change.org petition calling on Yulin authorities to ban the "barbaric" practice had garnered nearly 1.4 million signatures by 1 p.m. GMT on Monday.
Yulin officials have responded to the campaigns by saying that the festival is a commercial event that receives no public funding or support.
Dog traders have said that dogs are slaughtered humanely, a claim that is hotly disputed by campaigners, many of whom come from a generation born in the 1980s that grew up with family pets, the first to do so since the political turmoil and intermittent starvation of the Mao era.
The HSI website said a similar campaign last year had apparently had some effect, as the number of dogs slaughtered this year appeared to be much smaller.
Xie Jiaye, head of the New York-based Chinese Association of Science and Technology U.S.A., said the ranks of Chinese animal rights activists are growing by the year.
"Calls for an end to the consumption of dog meat are getting louder all the time," Xie said. "This is partly because of the close relationship between dogs and people, and the fact that more and more people are keeping dogs as pets."
"I don't even know ... why they still have this dog-meat eating festival," he said. "It's as if it is partly out of a sense of defiance."
10,000 dogs to be slaughtered
China's state-run news agency Xinhua said an estimated 10,000 dogs would be slaughtered during the festival.
It said local people believe that they "should be free to enjoy their tradition without finger-pointing."
However, it also cited concerns over "animal cruelty and the health risks of eating dogs, with suspicions that many of the animals are stolen and reach the table without any inspections or quarantining."
Dog meat traders are now bombarded annually by text and social media messages urging them to stop the slaughter, it said.
"Dogs are humans' friends. Stop killing; stop buying, selling and consuming!" the agency quoted one text as saying.
"We are used to it," the agency quoted trader Zhong Peihua as saying. "Some traders just turn off their phones."
Activists have also bought up dogs in large numbers in a bid to rescue some from the slaughter, with one woman spending more than U.S. $1,000 to save 100 animals, Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
Yang Xiaoyun, 65, plans to re-house the dogs at her home in the northern port city of Tianjin, it quoted online media reports as saying.
Other activists staged sit-ins in front of a market in the city, holding banners that read "Stop Killing," Xinhua said.
Local food safety official Chen Taotao said the local government has never supported the festival, which is "just a gathering of locals on summer solstice," the agency said.
But the craze for dog meat appears to be on the wane in China, with traders telling Xinhua they sold five times as many dogs five years ago as they did this year.
Some online comments called for an end to foreign meddling in Chinese customs, launching an online campaign to save turkeys at Christmas.
Ye Ning, a New York-based human rights lawyer, said animal rights protections are also linked to human rights protections.
"Countries that have strict legislation on animal protection usually also respect human rights, too," Ye said.
"In China, human rights aren't even protected or respected, so the rights of animals to protection doesn't even get onto the agenda," he said.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.