Activists posed as representatives of an international seafood company to get inside a mainland China building where hundreds of endangered whale sharks are processed.
The factory in China’s Zhejiang Province processes 600 whale sharks a year for various products, the most lucrative of which is shark liver oil used in skin care products, lipstick and for Omega-3 health supplements.
The makers of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about an annual dolphin kill in Japan, filmed the undercover sting following a three-year investigation by Hong Kong-based activists Paul Hilton and Alex Hofford of WildLifeRisk.
Hidden cameras covertly captured the factory owner, Li Guang, explaining processing, the products and how he gets them out of the country.
At the January 2013 meeting were Australian Paul Hilton, investigative conservation journalist Shawn Heinrichs, The Cove Director Louie Psihoyos, Oceanic Preservation Society (producers of The Cove) undercover operatives Charles Hambleton and Heather Rally and an anonymous interpreter.
The footage will appear in Oceanic Preservation Society’s next film currently titled The Heist, a feature length documentary calling attention to extinction of species.
Mr Li presented the group with jars of shark oil of three internationally protected shark species: great whites, basking sharks and whale sharks.
When exporting the shark oil, Mr Li said he labelled it as fish oil. He said he has to smuggle other products such as shark flesh out of the country.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which China is a signatory, restricts trade of their products across national borders. Eight shark species are listed by CITES.
The products derived from these protected species are being exported to the United States, Canada and Italy.
Undercover footage and audio recordings show the whale sharks ending up at the factory are being caught off the coast of China in the South China Sea as they pass the region on migratory journeys.
These journeys take in such famous whale shark-spotting sites as Ningaloo Reef off Australia’s northwest coast, and waters off Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico.
A fisherman can earn up to $US30,000 per whale shark, depending on the size.
Mr Li Guang has also said on camera that countless basking sharks and great white sharks are being industrially processed at his PuQi factory.
Investigators discovered that the liver oil from whale sharks and basking sharks is being sent to another processing plant on China’s Hainan Island, ‘Hainan Jiahua Marine Products Bio-Pharmaceutical Co Ltd’.
DNA testing confirmed the products came from endangered species.
WildLifeRisk says petitions will be launched shortly to bring further pressure on authorities in China.
“Anyone who’s ever swam with whale sharks realises how harmless they are,” Queenslander Paul Hilton of WildLifeRisk Told Business Insider Australia. “To see them there on the factory floor is heart breaking.”
WildLifeRisk has been flooded with offers of help from people around the world since the news broke last week.
“We’re overwhelmed by how people want to become involved,” Hilton says. “It’s a media frenzy. It’s definitely gone viral.”
Whale sharks are the largest known fish and are filter feeders, with their diet consisting mainly of plankton. They are docile creatures and popular attractions for divers.