For many people who live in the southern China town of Yulin, the summer solstice is the perfect time to get together with family and friends – and eat dog meat. Thousands of the animals end up on the chopping block during the city's annual dog meat festival, which has become increasingly controversial.

As many as 10,000 dogs, many of them stolen pets, are slaughtered for the festival in the largely rural and poor Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

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Puppies are kept in a cage at Dashichang dog market ahead of the dog meat festival in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
dog meat festival china
Vendors and bystanders wait for customers to buy dogs at a market in YulinJohannes Eisele/AFP
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A dog looks out from its cage at a market in Yulin during the dog meat festivalJohannes Eisele/AFP
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A vendor carries dogs in a cage on his motorbike at Dashichang market in Yulin during the dog meat festivalKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

The local government denies it has any ties to the event, issuing a statement saying it does not officially sponsor or promote the festival. It said authorities would tightly control public order and punish any incidents of stealing or poisoning dogs. It said traders would no longer be permitted to slaughter dogs in public, place carcasses on display or serve meals outdoors.

A group of about 25 animal rights activists briefly unfurled banners in front of the city government office, demanding an end to the festival, but they were quickly hustled away by unidentified men. Animal rights activists said they believed the men who stole their banners were working for the local government.

dog meat festival china
Men thought to be plain-clothes policemen snatch a banner from activists in front of the city hall in Yulin, during a protest against the dog meat festivalKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
dog meat festival china
Animal welfare activists use a dog carrying a basket with a message in Chinese 'child for sale'AFP
dog meat festival china
Animal right activist Du Yufeng is asked to leave by a policeman after she attempted to protest against the dog meat festivalKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Despite the restrictions, restaurant owners reported brisk business during the event ostensibly held to mark the summer solstice. Supporters of the festival say eating dog meat is traditional during the summer, while animal rights activists say the festival has no cultural value and was merely invented by dog meat traders in 2010 as a way to boost their flagging businesses.

In recent years, the event has found itself in the firing line of China's growing animal rights movement, turning Yulin into a battleground between those who want to protect man's best friend and others who would rather just eat him.

Warning: The following pictures contain graphics images of slaughtered, cooked and butchered dogs at the festival in Yulin.

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A man carrying butchered dogs on his scooter drives past a pet dog at a market in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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A woman butchers a cooked dog at a dog meat restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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Dog meat is weighed on a scale at a restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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A butchered dog is roasted at a back street stall in YulinJohannes Eisele/AFP
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Cooked dogs are displayed at a vendor's stall in YulinJohannes Eisele/AFP
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A vendor hangs up cooked dogs at his stall as he waits for customersAFP
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Dog meat is hung on hooks at a restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

The city's dog market has become a site for clashes between supporters and opponents of the trade. In the sweltering heat, tempers can often flare.

Eating dog is good for your health at the hottest time of the year, say supporters, and it is just like any other meat. "There are all sorts of cultural norms about what you can eat, you eat turkey, so why are you trying to force us to not eat dog meat?" shouted one dog meat supporter.

"It's healthy, just like raising pigs or chickens, it's fine," said Teng Jianyi, as he tucked into a dog dish with some friends.

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People enjoy a meal of lychees and dog meat at a restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
dog meat festival china
A boy looks at a bowl of dog meat carried by a waiter at a restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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Friends gather for a meal of dog meat and lychees during the annual summer solstice dog meat festival in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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A woman eats dog meat as she gathers with friends to eat dog meat and lychees to celebrate the annual festival in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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Customers drink as they gather to eat dog meat and lychees to celebrate the summer solsticeKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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People toast over a dog meat dish at an outdoor restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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A sign reading "Dog meat sold out" is attached to a table in front of a restaurant in YulinKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Celebrities such as British comedian Ricky Gervais and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen have called for an end to the festival, and more than one million people have signed an online petition protesting against it.

Some opponents of the festival take a more direct approach. In 2014, Yang Xiaoyun made the headlines after spending CN¥150,000 (£15,227, $24,160) to rescue around 350 dogs. Yang, who comes from northern China, returned in 2015 with funds raised from around the country, but she would not say exactly how much.

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A woman from an animal right activist group negotiates a price with a dog vendor in order to rescue itKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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An animal right activist takes care of dogs that were purchased by the activist's group in order to rescue them from dog dealersKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
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Dogs and cats that were bought by animal right activists in order to rescue them from dog dealers are seen near the dog trading marketKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Humane Society International (HSI) and Chinese animal activist groups helped to save hundreds of dogs and cats by purchasing them from traders. HSI says the Chinese authorities are turning a blind eye to a dog meat trade that blatantly relies on criminal activity to sustain it – illegal slaughterhouses without licence to operate, and the stealing of pet cats and dogs from towns and cities. Many of the dogs rescued were still wearing their collars, they say.

Adam Parascandola of HSI said: "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. There are also a lot of cats and tiny kittens rescued. 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."

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A dog rescued from the dog meat market looks out of its cageHumane Society International
dog meat festival china
Humane Society International's Adam Parascandola holds a dog just rescued from the dog meat market in YulinHumane Society International

Many residents of Yulin vow to continue eating dog. "This is one of our traditions," said Liang Xiaoli, who had returned home especially for the festival. "They criticise us, saying we don't have compassion or humanity, but I think every person has different circumstances. You can't just lump all people together. For example, if I think eating pork is really brutal, then no one can eat pork. That's not on."

Dog is eaten in some parts of China but is not a common dish. Owning dogs as pets was discouraged under early Communist Party rule but has become increasingly popular among the Chinese public, especially the urban middle class.