YULIN, China (AFP) - Campaigners protesting China's annual dog meat festival, which sees thousands of canines butchered and eaten, were forcibly dispersed by unidentified men on Monday as they attempted to rally outside a government office.
About 10 animal rights activists unfurled banners outside the Yulin government headquarters, before a group of 20 men came and chased them off.
The city holds an annual festival on the summer solstice devoted to the consumption of dog meat, in defiance of an increasing backlash from animal rights activists.
The campaigners held signs reading "Crack Down on Illegal Dog Meat Trade" and "Punish Illegal Dog Transport", but the banners were quickly torn out of their hands by the unidentified group of men.
The slogans are an attempt to appeal to local government officials to enforce existing laws on health and administrative grounds, as there are no rules banning the consumption of dog meat.
“Many of these animals are stolen pets, and most of the dog meat trucks coming in are in total breach of China’s very clear laws on animals for human consumption,” Mr Adam Parascandola, director of animal cruelty issues at the Washington-based Humane Society, said in a statement.
“How much longer can China simply allow the Yulin authorities to flout the law like this?”
As many as 10 million dogs are killed for food annually in China, with up to 10,000 killed for the Yulin festival, according to the Humane Society.
The majority of "meat dogs" in the country are stolen pets and strays, according to an investigation published this month by Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia, though eating dog is unusual in most parts of China.
Shortly after the protest in another part of Yulin, traders openly sold dogs off the back of scooters as hundreds gathered at a market. Many dogs were kept in tightly packed cages.
Activists, who say the festival is cruel, have in the past travelled to the city to hold demonstrations, sometimes buying dogs to save them from the cooking pots.
One animal lover, Yang Xiaoyun, reportedly paid about 7,000 yuan (S$1,515) to save around 100 dogs in the southern city of Yulin on Saturday.
Celebrities including British comedian Ricky Gervais and singer Leona Lewis have shown their support for the campaign by sharing graphic pictures of dogs being tortured, encouraging followers to sign Change.org petitions calling on the festival to be halted, China Daily reported.
Singers Leona Lewis and Richard Marx, among others, also tweeted about the campaign using the hasthag #StopYuLin2015.
A petition on Change.org calling for the end to the festival illustrated with a photo of a dog weeping tears of blood in front of a Chinese flag garnered more than 3.8 million signatures by Monday afternoon.
The city’s government has tried to distance itself from the event.
“Some residents of Yulin have the habit of coming together to eat lychees and dog meat during the summer solstice,” the city’s news office wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter equivalent.
“The ‘summer solstice lychee and dog meat festival’ is a commercial term, the city has never (officially) organised a ‘dog meat festival’,” it added.
Around 30 million households in the country are estimated to keep dogs as pets, helping to fuel the growing local animal rights movement.