It's no secret that China sometimes has a difficult relationship with critically threatened species. The African pangolin—a sort of scaly anteater—is down to 3,000 left in the wild with numbers dwindling, thanks to a market for both its meat and its medicinal properties. Rhino corpses are left rotting in the sun, faces massacred, for no more than a traditional medicine alleging healing properties and renewed virility.
Unfortunately, it seems you can add whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, to the list.
It all started a few weeks ago when images popped up on popular Chinese social media site, Weibo, featuring an "old friend": a whale shark who had been visiting an oil rig every May for several years.
A whale shark (originally mis-identified as a sand tiger shark) visits Platform-B. Long time no see, old friend.
A few days later, images of a whale shark hanging dead from a winch also surfaced:
People were understandably outraged and aired their grief in comments; this one summing the sentiment up nicely:
This is heartbreaking. Do these people think eating this whale shark would make them rich or immortal? I was just saying the other day that it must be because we’ve done a good job preserving the North Sea that the animal would turn up. And today it got killed! Fine, eat everything! Eat all the turtles, sharks and dolphins! Damage the environment and make all the animals extinct. Our grandchildren can always see taxidermies in museums.
It's unclear as to whether or not the dead shark is the same as the "old friend" seen at the oil rig—but really, does it matter? Any endangered species killed for profit is a crime that should be punished.
Fortunately, it seems the Chinese government agrees as they've arrested the two fishermen who sold it at market. They claim that it was already dead when they found it.
Whale sharks can reportedly fetch $30,000 on the black market and the fact that they are friendly and docile—often allowing divers to hitch rides on their fins—makes them irresistible to fishermen willing to take the legal risk.
Despite a push from the Chinese government to protect the animal—not to mention NOAA's petition to have the whale shark officially listed as endangered—a shocking amount of them have been slaughtered in the past few years alone. According to a National Geographic article from 2014, despite being legally protected, a single factory in the southeastern China city of Puqi has been slaughtering at least 600 whale and basking sharks a year.
While there are no clear numbers, it's estimated that whale sharks number only in the thousands.
A three-year sting operation caught candid conversations with factory management about harvesting the whale shark. With the Chinese market legally blocked, the factory smuggles out the meat to sell in Sri Lankan markets and the oil to European markets, where it's used in cosmetics.
(The below video is graphic.)
That's not even to mention another 2014 incident where a dead whale shark was openly driven through a Chinese town atop a cart:
It's unclear as to whether or not any of these people were ever punished. Research returned no results on whether the Puqi factory is still in operation. As such, it's further unclear as to how serious the Chinese government is about cracking down on this kind of illegal fishing, but at the very least, there are laws on the books. Article 31 of the Law of the People's Republic of China on The Protection of Wildlife states:
Anyone who illegally catches or kills wildlife under special state protection shall be prosecuted for criminal responsibility in accordance with the supplementary provisions on punishing the crimes of catching or killing the species of wildlife under special state protection which are rare or near extinction.
And just to make it clear that we're not unfairly singling out Chinese citizens: It's not like some Americans don't have shocking disdain for endangered or threatened species. Just ask whoever's been killing bald eagles in Maryland.