YULIN, China - A notorious Chinese dog meat festival opened on Wednesday with butchers hacking up slabs of canines and cooks frying the flesh, despite rumours that authorities would impose a ban this year.
After initial reports that authorities would ban the meat at the summer solstice event in the southern city of Yulin, animal rights groups said vendors and officials reached a compromise and set a limit of two dogs displayed per stall.
But multiple carcasses rested on some stalls at the main Nanqiao market, with stiff pointy tails, leathery yellow skin, eyes shut and bared teeth as if in a final growl.
Animal welfare groups, however, said sales appeared to be down this year.
Behind two long rows of dog butchers, other vendors sold more typical fare like cow tongues and pork hocks and trotters. But even they sold some dog parts, including liver.
The market also features poultry, tanks of fish and vegetables and fruit, including big bundles of lychees.
There was a heavy police presence outside the market and at all intersections.
A restaurant owner surnamed Yang said he sells rice noodle soup in the morning but lunch customers order dog.
"Business during the festival goes up about ninefold. But don't worry, we always manage to have enough dogs," he said, adding that he planned to sell six dogs a day during the festival.
Thousands of dogs have traditionally been killed during the festival in conditions activists describe as brutal, with dogs beaten and boiled alive in the belief that the more terrified they are, the tastier the meat.
Dog meat sellers have said previously that activists' protests have actually attracted greater attention and encouraged more people to eat the meat.
Between 10 million and 20 million dogs are killed for food annually in China, according to the Humane Society International (HSI).
Dog meat consumption is not illegal in China, but animal rights groups have sought to stop its sale at the annual festival.
"Despite the fact that there does not seem to be a ban on all dog meat, the festival appears to be smaller this year, with fewer dogs losing their lives to this cruel industry," Irene Feng of Animals Asia told AFP.
Activists reported a "significant decrease" in the amount of dog meat for sale at Yulin markets, with some traders saying they had stopped buying dogs, according to HSI.
"Ending the Yulin dog meat festival will be made up of smaller victories such as this and it's important that we recognise when progress has been made," said HSI spokeswoman Wendy Higgins.
But locals disagreed that sales were down and a storm contributed to the smaller crowds.
Outside the market, vendors sold stewed dog meat out of enormous steaming woks, shovelling big portions into plastic bags for passing customers.
Some changed their "dog meat" signs to read "tasty meat" instead. One restaurant put yellow paper over the character for dog.
Liu Zhong, the owner of a small herbal medicine shop where bottles of snakes marinate in red liquid, said police were watching things "very closely" at the Dongkou market to ensure restrictions were observed but wholesalers operate out of homes or secret locations.
"They just won't sell to people they don't know well. It's just a bit more under wraps," said Liu, who stopped eating dog meat 10 years ago and now owns seven of them as pets.
Li Yongwei, a Yulin resident in his 40s, said eating dog was the same as any other meat.
"What's the difference between eating dog, chicken, beef or pork?" he said.
"This is a part of local culture. You shouldn't force people to make choices they don't want to make, the way you wouldn't force someone to be a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim. It's people's own choice what they eat."
Chen Bing, a 25-year-old office worker playing mahjong with six friends as the rain fell outside, said the government could not cancel the festival even if it wanted to.
"The festival will go on. Young people, old people, even babies are all eating dog meat. It's tradition. Yulin has no local specialities. The festival gives us something special."