Animal rights advocates are reporting a victory in their fight against an annual dog meat festival in China, saying that officials in the southern city of Yulin had agreed to ban the sale of dog meat in the week before the event.
No city officials reached on Thursday were able to confirm the ban, and dog restaurants contacted by the BBC said they had not heard anything about it.
The Humane Society International and the Duo Duo Project, an animal advocacy group based in California, announced news of the ban on Thursday, citing reports from Chinese animal rights advocates and dog meat traders in Yulin. According to the reports, anyone caught selling dog meat in the week leading up to the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, which starts on June 21, will face fines of up to 100,000 renminbi, or about $14,500, and possibly time in prison.
While there have been previous attempts to curtail sales of dog meat, this is believed to be the first time that the government had threatened concrete penalties.
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“I’m optimistic,” Peter J. Li, a China policy adviser to Humane Society International, said in a telephone interview. “Of course we understand that no law can completely deter the sale of dog meat in Yulin. But this ban suggests that the government is becoming more serious about taking action in a determined way.”
Animal rights supporters were calling it a “milestone victory” in the campaign to end the consumption of dogs in China.
Activists said notice of the temporary prohibition was conveyed orally to local restaurant owners and vendors. In the past, officials have mostly skirted the issue, insisting that the festival is a local tradition signaling the summer solstice and not organized or endorsed by the government. Reached by telephone on Thursday, employees at four government departments in Yulin, including the food safety bureau, said that they had not heard of a ban.
“I don’t think they will publicly acknowledge it,” said Andrea Gung, the founder of the Duo Duo Project, referring to the government officials. “But my source spoke with every single one of the dog meat vendors at Dongkou” — Yulin’s main market for the meat — “and they all said the same thing: a seven-day ban on dog meat sales starting on June 15.”
It remains to be seen to what extent a ban will be enforced. The ban lasts only a week. While this covers the days before the festival and its opening, when a majority of the dogs are typically killed and consumed, activists expect that most, if not all, of the dog meat vendors will resume selling once the ban is lifted. In addition, it is unclear whether the prohibition extends to cats, which are also consumed during the festival, though their meat is less popular.
Nevertheless, the embargo is still being celebrated as a positive step for animal welfare in China.
“Even though these dog meat traders will probably return to business as usual, the ban still sends a clear signal: From now on, your livelihood and your business will only become much more difficult,” Mr. Li said.
The ban is the latest development in what has become a highly charged standoff between animal welfare advocates and residents and dog meat vendors in Yulin.
Animal lovers have grown increasingly vocal in their calls to shut down the festival, which activists say was only started in 2010 by dog meat vendors to increase sales. More than 10,000 dogs — many of which are believed to be stolen pets — are said to be consumed at the celebrations every year.
As international scrutiny has intensified, residents and dog meat vendors have become increasingly defensive. Activists say only about 30 percent of people in Yulin eat dog meat regularly, but many residents say they feel they have been unfairly targeted. Eating dog meat and lychees during the summer solstice, they argue, is a longstanding local custom, and no different from eating cows or pigs.
But in recent years, what began as a mostly international movement, led by celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Gisele Bündchen, has gained more support in China, where the issue of animal rights is given more space for debate relative to other grass-roots topics.
As pet ownership rates have risen, local animal rights advocates have become more active, regularly intercepting trucks filled with trafficked dogs and organizing social media campaigns to raise awareness about issues like dog meat consumption, a practice that is found mostly in the northeast and in the southern regions of Guangxi and Guangdong.
Now, calls to end the festival have become so widespread that it has become the focal point of a broader campaign to end dog meat consumption in China and the often-brutal practices associated with its largely unregulated trade.
“A big credit goes to the Chinese activists,” Ms. Gung said. “Usually most of the foreign activists take off after the festival ends, but these local activists, they stick around, and they still talk about it, they care about it.”