National Geographic News
Aa photo of two whale sharks being processed.

Two whale sharks are processed in a factory in China.

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILDLIFE RISK

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published January 29, 2014

Whale sharks are being slaughtered: That's the shocking news from a report issued by WildLifeRisk, a nongovernmental organization. A three-year investigation provides evidence that a factory in southeastern China is cutting up about 600 of the 21-ton (19-tonne) fish a year.

It's illegal—whale sharks are a protected species under Chinese and international law. But it's easy to understand why: A single carcass is worth about $30,000. The shark meat is sold for food, the fins are sold to restaurants for shark fin soup, the skin is sold to manufacturers for bags, and the oil is sold to companies that make fish oil supplements.

The factory is also reportedly killing and processing other species under international protection, including basking sharks and great white sharks.

Hong Kong-based activists Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton, who founded WildLifeRisk, visited the facility in PuQi township (map), China, three times between 2010 and 2013, posing as buyers. They obtained covert audio and video recordings of the factory's activities.

In a taped conversation between factory general manager Li Guang and a translator, Li states the facility processes between 500 and 600 big sharks each year, including whale and basking sharks.

China Whale Sharks from WildLifeRisk on Vimeo.

A nongovernmental organization in China tipped off Hofford and Hilton to this factory. "But to protect them, we can't reveal their name," writes Hofford in an email to National Geographic.

Not a Little Thing

"If they're in fact processing 600 a year, that's pretty horrifying," says Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. The worldwide population is estimated to be in the thousands. (Read about whale sharks in National Geographic magazine.)

A photo of a whale shark being pulled on deck.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILDLIFE RISK
A whale shark being pulled aboard after being caught in a purse seiner.

The report states that local fishers supply these sharks to the factory, but that the animals also come in from as far away as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico.

Hueter can recall only one other similar instance of whale sharks being slaughtered: a legal fishery in Taiwan that took about 800 whale sharks between 1995 and 2008. That fishery folded six years ago due to international pressure.

Uncertain Protections

All three species—whale, basking, and great white sharks—are protected under CITES Appendix II, meaning that although they are not currently threatened with extinction, "they may become so unless trade is closely controlled," according to the CITES website.

A photo of a whale shark.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL HILTON, GREENPEACE
A whale shark swims off the coast of Indonesia.

Countries that have signed the treaty—which include China—must demonstrate that the export of species listed on Appendix II is done sustainably and legally, explains Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International in Washington, D.C.

The report states that China has its own national protections in place for these three shark species, and that a special permit is needed to hunt them.

A statement by the Bureau of Fisheries—which is under China's Ministry of Agriculture—in the South China Morning Post noted that "the hunting and sale of the three shark species was illegal on the mainland and punishable by a fine or jail sentence."

Forging Ahead

Hofford says that he and Hilton are now working with the director of The Cove—the documentary detailing the roundup of dolphins in Taiji, Japan—to bring wider attention and awareness to the issue of shark fisheries. (See also "Albino Dolphin: Uncertain Fate Awaits Rare Calf Captured in Japanese Hunt.")

A photo of whale shark fins drying.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILDLIFE RISK
Whale shark fins are dried and stacked for export in China.

Hueter himself is reaching out to colleagues in Asia to get more details on this factory.

"What bothers me about this report is that this is an undercover operation going on in China," Hueter says. "So if there's one of these [factories], the chances that there's more than one are pretty good, I'm guessing." (Learn about citizen scientists tracking whale sharks.)

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

56 comments
Karin Holloway
Karin Holloway

This is hurting my heart! What can we do to help stop this? Tell us, please!

Kate Labarbera
Kate Labarbera

tigers, bears, rhinos, dolphins, elephants, sharks, whales and now whale sharks? anything else you want to take off the face of the earth? cause at this rate well have no animals left. im sorry but it makes me digusted in the lack of compassion that people have. if there really are medical values to killing these animals please show the world proof because as of now its just making you look bad. And i get that its not the only country that does but at the same time no one really does it to the extent that china does. 

Jerry Long
Jerry Long

I'm so sorry about it happened in China. Some foolish people believe that shark has medical values for health, it's rumor from the trader who got benefit.

Exposed this case to the public media organization could push the government to stop those things.

Jolanda Piehl
Jolanda Piehl

wann hört endlich dieses grausame töten der Wahle auf. werden die menschen überhaupt nicht vernünftig. wir wissen doch alle wie unsere meere gefährdet sind, besonders unsere wahle. nicht nur die wahle sondern unserer ganzer fischbestand. es gibt doch genügend informationen darüber. oder verschliessen wir unsere augen so lange bis es wirklich zu spät ist, und unsere ozeane leergefischt sind. wo führt unsere menschlisches leben denn hin.sind wir geboren um alles zu zestören? warum greifen die regierungen weltweit  nicht endlich mal mit drastisch strafmaßnahmen ein. wenn ich die zahl lese 600 wahlen werden wieder getötet, das macht mich sehr wütend, und traurig. wir zerstören uns selber. eines tages werden  wir unseren kinder nur aus büchern zeigen können  was für eine wunderbare unterwasserwelt in den ozeanen gelebt hat. hinzu kommt das auch sehr viele tiere auf diesen planeten sich von der nahrung aus dem meer ernähren. wir menschen nehmen auch ihnen die überlebens chance. mal sehen wie weit wir es bringen.

Joseph R.
Joseph R.

Wait until China imposes its ADZN, and cordons off the shipping lanes in the Spratlys. They will hunt not only whale sharks, basking sharks, and great white sharks but every sea creature that moves in that supposedly protected area. This is the reason why the U.S. and other powerful countries must stop China from its expansionist ambitions.

Rose Marie Matheny
Rose Marie Matheny

why show us do something instead of lip service....our whole world is being demolished by nothing but greed


Carolyn LeBlanc
Carolyn LeBlanc

Can you please publish something regarding what we can do? Its sickening, but we don't know what/who to support to help stop it.

Tanya Sharpe
Tanya Sharpe

Everybody know's from right to wrong and supporting a family legally and not. Poverty is everywhere does not give humans the right to kill everything in it's path, but it happens over sea's more often. Does not give Chinese or any country the right to keep doing things illegally or not I live at poverty level and you don't see me harvesting pot or meth to keep my family a float, we choose to live honestly and live each day until the day we are given that opportunity, if not be thankful for what we are given and earth to live on and nature to protect, everyone forgest what's around us, its all about the friggin money, money, money. Who's going to hit it rich, that us as a civilization has forgotten what being thankful is about!!!! We have to protect which is not rightfully ours!!!!


alain erenati
alain erenati

their ship must be identified and sank to the bottom !!

Pengjuan Kuang
Pengjuan Kuang

How can you blame Chinese even you guys don't know why they do that?They just want to earn more money to afford their children's education, family's daily expenditure or even the disabled family members. You guys in Europe, America or other developed countries enjoy high social welfare from your governments. You don't need to worry about anything:education of children, health care, compenion for retirement......But they do!!!Chinese can't make sure that everything of citizens' lives goes well due to the huge population. Some farmers in China don't know what is envronment potection, they are not well eduated. They didn't have chance to receive education when they were young.If you are not educated, if you are poor, if your government don't pay for bills of you and your children's future, you will do this too......

Alex Bon
Alex Bon

Educated Consumerism seems to be the answer to this problem. You cannot blame China for doing this when the rest of the world continues to buy their product. Eliminate the demand! This would mean taking responsibility as consumers and educating ourselves as to where the products we buy are really coming from. This is not as radical a suggestion as depopulation but more people might actually do it. Especially when they keep reading stories like these...

Satiko Sarap
Satiko Sarap

Tigers are being slaughtered because of chinese and their medicine, bears being turtured and killed because of chinese and their medicine for bear bile ... rhino are being poached because of chinese beleive in aphrodisiac value on it ..... and now this! When will these people respect and leave nature and animals on peace??

Anne Birch
Anne Birch

is there any action we, as citizens, can take?

Sachin Chauhan
Sachin Chauhan

from the largest of the animals to the smallest nothing is safe form humans


Steve Santos
Steve Santos

Boycott China products.. they are a nuissance to peace and environment conservation

Richard Rix
Richard Rix

The problem is not China or their culture. It is a problem that the entire world has. It is called OVER POPULATION. There are to many people in this world. Asia, Africa, North and South America and Europe. Every person needs food and every person creates trash and garbage. We cant solve these problem by becoming vegetarians, boycotting China or negotiations and recycling. There is one thing that will solve all the problems in the world. We must de-populate. DE-POPULATE the planet. For the sake of animals, fresh water, eco systems and world hunger and poverty. And the only way we can de-populate is by NOT HAVING CHILDREN. NO CHILDREN FOR THE NEXT 10 YEARS. I call this project THE DECADE OF DE-POPULATION. It will solve all the problems in the world. Over fishing, health issues, wars, the devastation of land and marine eco-systems, world hunger and poverty and wars. Let the world join hands in this new project DECADE OF DE-POPULATION and save the planet.

If you want to know more and contact me about his you can contact me by email:

rjerix@webmail.co.za

Hope to hear from everybody soon.

Emil Bulabos
Emil Bulabos

China will consume the world by any means..

Tux Buceouv
Tux Buceouv

que verguenza! Lo peor es que ocurre en muchos otros lugares.

JOHN MULHOLLAN
JOHN MULHOLLAN

and the government knows nothing?  big bucks here

run awayuniverse
run awayuniverse

Why single out China, when all over this planet we are decimating the environment all in the name of progress. Animals and their habitats are vanishing at accelerated rates due to human greed and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. 

Gerry Bourgeois
Gerry Bourgeois

This is so typical of Asian countries, especially China.  Their market also includes elephant tusks,  rhino horns, bear claws etc.  In return out of China we get every flu virus known to mankind.  These countries have few morals.

Dylan Mead
Dylan Mead

@Carolyn LeBlanc tell friends and family not to buy fish oil supplements. That seems like a good place to start.


Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Carolyn LeBlanc  I would suggest approaching the advocacy group that conducted the investigation, WildLifeRisk, to see if there's a way people can get involved in helping to stop things like this.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@alain erenati  Unfortunately, it's likely the fishers catching these animals are small operations, not the big industrial fishing ships.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Pengjuan Kuang  Good point. And in the report put out by WildLifeRisk, they state that it's likely the fishers aren't aware that they're hunting nationally and internationally protected wildlife. There's definitely room there for education, I think.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Alex Bon  Good point. And I asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service what consumers might be able to do to see whether the fish oil supplements they buy contain oil from protected species. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.


Exporters must declare the presence of any species listed on CITES Appendix II on their paperwork when they bring goods into the U.S.


But not everyone does. FWS does spot checks of incoming products, and they can do targeted searches if they get tipped off or if they see certain patterns that could indicate illegal activity. 


But it's catch as catch can, and unfortunately, some stuff still makes it through.

Germain Lacoste-Caron
Germain Lacoste-Caron

@Alex Bon : Agreed with you on most situations like this one. But in that particular case, most sharks fins and meat are mostly consumed by the chinese themself... No idea about the oil supplements for fish and about the shark skins used to make purses.

Educated fisherman is the only way to go.... try to apply hard legislation out on the sea!

Mohamed Ayed
Mohamed Ayed

@Richard Rix: You can start by yourself as a start ;) 
 Earth is able to feed and populate double the current population, it's the way of life and economy laws, and more than so, politics. 

that makes it impossible to do so. If you cut the population to half, the consumtion will not become less, it will increase as people will become richer. 

If the whole populaion on earth live the american way of life, we will need 3 more planet earths to cover our needs for resources

De-population doesn't solve anything, and how do you plan to do so anyway? Nuke and bomb people? You already did so. You just need few more nuclear bombs. 


Y. H
Y. H

@Paul Matich Yes, because the one cold and unemotional person you worked with is indicative of the 1.35 billion Chinese people in the world, many of whom are poor, illiterate, uneducated, and must provide for their families through illegal methods because there's nothing else they can do.

And seriously? What is your purpose of listing all the cultural food besides showing your ignorance? May I remind you that Westerners have blue cheese, Alaskans have whale blubber, and many people in Africa enjoy termites. What people eat is a result of their culture, not of their possible bad personality or superiority. Not all Chinese people eat the food you described (and the eggs are fermented, not rotten. Very different chemical processes).


Also, please cite your sources for your claim of "Even while it's alive they start to feast," because I lived in China for a decade, and I have never seen anyone eat something that is still alive.

Adam King
Adam King

@run awayuniverse China is easy to single out. Although they do have an emerging interest in preservation from within the country, they also support an industry that is based in the trade and sale of animal products. Chinese medicine (which in some cases is founded in true medicine), utilizes a wide range of animal products. The demand for these specific "pieces and parts" has caused profitable markets to emerge in both China; as well as south east Asia. Shark finning, for example, is performed by a number of countries who all feed the growing demand for these products in China. Same goes for Rhino horns pulled from Africa, tiger penis (yes, you heard right) from just about anywhere...the list goes on. 


As long as this practice continues and the demand is there, people will try to provide for that market. Unfortunately for China, it doesn't help having 19% of the world's population coupled with an archaic belief system. Also, overall pollution and a lack of control from the Chinese government are all key indicators that they have no regard for the issues that you have outlined above. India is just as much to blame, but it doesn't have quite the global effect that China does right now. Also, the US and Japan are in the same boat, but at least both countries are working towards a more sustainable future (despite the whaling in Japan, obviously). 

Dylan Mead
Dylan Mead

@Gerry Bourgeois Note that the factory was exposed by Chinese activists. I live in Oregon where the native salmon populations have been decimated by fishing and damning the rivers. Does that mean we have no morals or are just undereducated or complacent?

Archie Tan
Archie Tan

@Gerry Bourgeois  you are not the poster child of morals either generalizing every asian country as if every single one condones these horrendous acts. you should travel asia a little and get yourself some knowledge about the world. 

Juliet C.
Juliet C.

@Gerry Bourgeois  You can hardly blame China for all that. Plenty of other countries are just as evil. In Africa and the middle east, things are going on just like that.

Susan Conley
Susan Conley

Inane, MA...you completely lack logic on all counts!

Pengjuan Kuang
Pengjuan Kuang

Well, not every one from China is like this. This kind of situation only happens in southern China, GuangDong, which is close to Hong Kong.

Ashwin Raj
Ashwin Raj

@Adam King @run awayuniverse  How did you work out the fact about India? Do you have any evidence or article to back up your claim or are you just another western hypocrite?

India has poverty, a bad record in its treatment of women, corrupt government officials but it has always treated it's animals well. It's not just about cows. Indian alternative medicine (Ayurveda) is purely herbal. If you want to blame another country then look nearer home, the Danes of Faroe islands to be precise.

By the way, India has declared dolphins as non-human persons giving it rights to life and liberty which is more than anything which the progressive west can boast for.

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