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YULIN (Web Desk) – An annual dog meat festival in south-west China has begun, amid uproar on the part of animal rights activists.

Undercover footage of the notorious Yulin meat festival has emerged as tensions mount ahead of tomorrow’s official launch.

About 10,000 dogs will be slaughtered for their meat at the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin in Guangxi province on Sunday and Monday to mark the summer solstice, state media said.

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Thousands of dogs are being shipped in and slaughtered by dog traders to mark China’s summer solstice, which will then be eaten and washed down with lychee wine.

Harrowing pictures have emerged of the stolen family pets and other waifs and strays, stuffed inside cramped metal cages as they are lined up to be sold at the cruel carnival.

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Dogs can be heard yelping as animal rights’ campaigners surreptitiously film the dog markets, keeping the camera hidden from view for fear of angering locals.

And photographs, taken by members of Humane Society International (HSI) capturing brutal slaughterhouse scenes in the city, clearly show the trade in dog meat is already well underway.

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Distraught campaigners and outraged locals have been going there to buy pups and save them from certain death.

Hundreds of animals have been rescued and purchased from dog meat traders, but thousands are expected to be killed and their meat consumed for the festival, which authorities have tried to deny is still happening, charities say.

“We’ve seen all manner of dog breeds coming in to the rescue shelters, some of them obviously someone’s pet because they still have their collars on with their names,” said Adam Parascandola, from the HSI.

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“There are also a lot of cats and tiny kittens rescued. It’s nauseating to think that these poor guys were next to be beaten to death and eaten.

“We know that these are only a small number compared to the thousands who have already suffered and died, but every life saved is precious,” he told the Daily Mail.

He said there was a ‘real divide’ in Yulin between the older generation dog meat traders and the younger generation Chinese animal traders who want it to stop.

He said: “We’ve also seen just ordinary Chinese citizens who have no connection at all to animal rights but have seen the news and felt compelled to come down and help these animals.

“It’s inspiring actually, and a real sign of hope for a future China without this horrific dog and cat meat trade.

One retired school teacher from Tianjin hit the headlines when she purchased dozens of dogs to save them.

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Yang Xiaoyun, retired school teacher, paid about 7,000 yuan ($1,100; £710) to save 100 dogs on Saturday.

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Residents and vendors in Yulin say the animals are killed in a humane way.

Many of the animals die on the long truck journeys from across China with others suffering such horrendous injuries that they cannot stand in the filthy pens they are transferred to.

Those who do survive are clubbed over the head and have their throats cut open before they are thrown into boiling water. The butcher then plucks all the hair, removes all the organs and puts the dog on the grill.

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Up to 10 million dogs are believed to be killed for their meat in China every year, with as many as 10,000 killed for the Yulin festival alone.

The festival itself has no cultural significance, it was invented by dog meat traders in 2010 as a way to boost their flagging business.

Although dog meat can be found in China today, it is not widely eaten by the average Chinese person and is not part of mainstream culinary practice.

Xing Hai, a Chinese activist working with HSI, said: “I’m ashamed that around the world China has become famous for its animal cruelty, and Yulin in particular, and I want people to know that there are thousands of us here in China who are sickened by this cruelty too.

“This is not the China that we want, the old ways of treating animals have to end, Yulin is just the start.”

The organisation claims the local government could be violating China’s national policy by allowing the cruel festival to continue.

It is legal to eat dogs in China and the country has no law protecting the welfare of pets but its Ministry of Agriculture has strict rules which require every cat and dog to have an ‘inspection certificates’ before they are transported.

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Because most of these animals are stolen pets or strays grabbed off the street, dog meat traders do not have the right paperwork or produce ‘fraudulent documents’ instead, HSI claims.

Some slaughterhouse owners admitted they did not have ‘quarantine certificates’ and local health inspectors never visit to check out the animals – many of whom look visibly sick.

Activists say the killing is cruel and an online campaign to ban the festival has been signed by more than 3.8 million people so far and the campaign has attracted considerable support this year from celebrities both domestic and foreign.

Celebrities including British comedian Ricky Gervais have spoken out on Twitter with the hashtag #StopYuLin2015.

Chinese pop star Chen Kun and actor Yang Mi have said they are joining the campaign on micro blogging site Weibo.

And Chinese actor Fan Bingbing and others posted a video online against the festival.

The tradition of eating dog meat dates back four or five hundred years in China, South Korea and other countries, as it is believed to ward off the heat of the summer months, according to state news agency Xinhua.

However, this festival began in recent years, Xinhua said.

City officials have distanced themselves from the gathering. “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 Weibo.

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“The ‘summer solstice lychee and dog meat festival’ is a commercial term, the city has never [officially] organised a ‘dog meat festival’,” it added.

The BBC’s Celia Hatton in Beijing says this kind of dispute puts the government in a really difficult position. The glorified consumption of dog meat generates a lot of negative foreign media reports, embarrassing the authorities. Also, the dog meat industry has been accused of many underhand tactics, including the illegal capture of family pets to use as food.

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But at the same time, the government is wary of the increasingly sophisticated animal rights movement, she adds.

Animal rights activists in China have formed a cohesive network on social media that extends to many foreign animal welfare groups. China’s leaders do not want to encourage such a movement amid a wider crackdown on civil disturbance of any kind.