A slaughterhouse in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang has been killing around 600 endangered whale sharks annually to meet demand for shark's fin soup and other luxuries, a Hong Kong wildlife group has alleged.
The shark processing facility at Puqi township near Wenzhou city flouts international wildlife protection treaties and China's own laws on endangered species, according to a report issued this week by the campaign group WildLifeRisk.
"This is illegal in China," group spokesman Paul Hilton told RFA's Mandarin Service. "Wild animals are protected both internationally and in China."
"The slaughterhouse at Puqi is still in operation," Hilton warned, after carrying out a four-year probe into operations at the plant.
"We hope that China will put a stop to these sorts of activities," he said.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental laws, including high levels of protection on paper for wildlife.
But close ties between business and local governments mean these laws are rarely enforced at local level, according to environmental groups.
Hilton said that shark-based products, including shark's fin for soup and fish oil for beauty products, are in hot demand in high-end restaurants and among manufacturers of face creams and health-care products.
"The whale sharks at Puqi come from all over," Hilton said. "Some come from Chinese waters, while others come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia."
The group used undercover video footage and audio recordings to trace the route of the whale sharks ending up at the Puqi factory, most of them caught off the coast of China in the South China Sea as they traverse the region on their migratory journeys, it said in a statement on its website.
It said it had also identified "countless" basking sharks and great white sharks—both of which have the highest level of international protection-—at Puqi.
"The products derived from these protected species are being exported to the United States, Canada, and Italy, in contravention of the internationally-binding CITES agreement," the group said, in a reference to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
"How these harmless creatures, these gentle giants of the deep, can be slaughtered on such an industrial scale is beyond belief," Hilton said in a joint statement with colleague Alex Hofford.
"It's even more incredible that this carnage is all for the sake of nonessential lifestyle props such as lipsticks, face creams, health supplements, and shark fin soup."
Need for protection
Chen Ming, who heads an environment campaign group in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing, said that international attitudes that regard sharks as an endangered species in need of protection have yet to filter through into mainstream Chinese culture, where shark's fin soup is still a high-status delicacy for many.
"Mostly, it's the very expensive restaurants along the southern coast that offer shark's fin," Chen said.
But he said calls have also been growing as part of China's nascent environmental movement for an end to the practice.
WildLifeRisk said it would support the growth of ecotourism, which includes such activities as diving with whale sharks, as an alternative to killing the animals.
"These endangered creatures are worth far more, in economic terms, alive rather than dead," it said, citing Pew Environment Group research as saying that whale shark tourism is worth around U.S.$47.5 million annually, worldwide.
'Only for the rich'
Zhejiang-based rights activist Lu Gengsong said recent reports in China's tightly controlled state media said that the consumption of shark's fin soup has fallen by around 70 percent in recent months.
He said high-status luxuries like shark's fin soup and meals from endangered species are all too often an indicator of official corruption.
"These sorts of dishes are only for rich people," Lu said. "Officials aren't paying their own bill; they are being paid for by the rich, which boosts corruption."
"It seems that the craze for elaborate banquets has eased off a little, but there's no cure for corruption," he said.
Since taking office in March, China's President Xi Jinping has demanded officials cut down on waste and extravagance and get closer to the people, as part of a broader campaign against corruption.
Xi has warned that the party must beat graft in order to survive, and has launched a campaign targeting powerful "tigers" as well as lowly "flies."
But rights groups say dozens of activists who called on high-ranking officials to reveal details of their wealth have been detained in recent months.
Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.