The map on my smartphone leads me to the kind of place that exists only in China; a no man’s land where the countryside and the city blend uncertainly into one another. A full moon illuminates the dirt track, the silhouettes of crooked trees flanking my route. Up ahead, high-rise towers loom while all around is junk scattered in the tall grass. I’m jumpy, my nerves jangling as the howling grows louder.

I arrive at a shack to find a rusty cage holding up to 1,000 dogs. The animals claw at one another as they fight for space. The stench of faeces, blood and bile is nauseating, the helpless baying disquieting. More overpowering still is the miasma of terror.

I’m here to rendezvous with Isobel Zhang Yuanyuan, a veteran animal-rights activist based in Shenzhen who has come to Yulin, in Guangxi, on behalf of ACTAsia, a British charity promoting animal welfare throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Zhang and a group of activists are discussing what to do with the blighted beasts. Eventually, two men enter the cage, lifting the most seriously injured dogs out. They begin to administer emergency treatment. One puppy is barely capable of moving, lying on its side and wheezing a heart-rending sigh. The paunchy owner of this vile lot is watching, smoking, seemingly unfazed by the grim scene.

“He doesn’t mind, these dogs have been sold,” explains Zhang.

The dogs are some of the lucky few, acquired by the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and apparently destined for new homes in the United States.

Then why is she here?

“It’s a chance for me to get close to this kind of enclosure and understand better how the dog-meat business works in Yulin,” says Zhang.

The following day, she takes me to see Yulin’s infamous dog-meat festival first-hand. I imagined that only a small minority of society took part but our taxi driver is quick to disillusion me, “As far as we Yulin people are concerned, eating dog is just like eating chicken.” As if to prove his point a motorbike races by carrying a terrified caged canine.

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In the town centre, a crowd gathers, but not to make merry. A mob corners a group of television journalists from Beijing and elsewhere, posturing aggressively; making sure nothing untoward is said of Yulin. But when Zhang and I arrive we soon grab the crowd’s attention. She is a known activist, outspoken in the media on issues of animal abuse in China, and I’m a foreigner, sticking out like a nail, ready to be hammered down. A red-faced man with few teeth to speak of takes up the challenge, runs over and yells in my face, “Do you eat dog meat? No, you foreign devils eat steak, right?”

I don’t betray the fact that I speak Chinese (or that I am a vegetarian) and hurriedly walk away. In the throng I meet a similarly unnerved Hong Kong journalist who tells me, “Since Vice magazine made a film about the dog-meat festival, the people here are really defensive.”

Locals stare, point and take our picture. By noon, two men are trailing us.

Only under the cover of darkness are we able to see the festival up close, when we walk surreptitiously through Yulin glancing at the carcasses of dogs hanging in restaurants.

The only respite from the air of violence that permeates the city comes when Zhang takes me for dinner at the Yulin vegetarian festival. Held on the same day as the dog-meat festival, this enormous open-air annual event sees Yulin’s Buddhists gather to gorge on meat-free delicacies and enjoy a variety show. It’s everything a community festival should be, joyous and welcoming. I’m returned to a more familiar China, one where people want a photograph taken with me, not of me.

Chinese city goes ahead with annual dog-meat eating festival despite protests

IT’S SOME WEEKS BEFORE Zhang and I meet again, this time in the far more conducive surrounds of her homely Shenzhen duplex, in the company of her dog and six cats: “my children”, as she likes to call them. She’s immensely busy, she explains, jetting all over the country for animal-welfare workshops and conferences. But Yulin is still on her mind.

“I’ve been going year on year,” she says, full of fervour, “but nothing changes, they just become more secretive, more protective. I wish I could make a connection with an institution [in Yulin] so I could launch an educational programme. That’s the issue there, people don’t understand why everyone is so offended by the dog-meat festival.

“If your belly is full, isn’t that enough? Just because you eat chicken, why does that green-light everything else? Taken to the Nth degree this is why humans have damaged the natural world so much. People will talk themselves into anything and then say it’s their right. Well, I’m your compatriot, why can’t I express what I think is right?”

Clearly frustrated, Zhang turns her scorn on the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, which garnered positive press when it claimed to have shut down five slaughterhouses and celebrated the rescue “of a thousand dogs” online.

“They bought those dogs. That will make the problem worse, as it sustains the dog trade,” Zhang says. “[ACTAsia] believe that only through education and public awareness can we tackle the problem sensibly.”

Zhang’s crusade began after she moved from her home province of Anhui, by way of Guangzhou, to Shenzhen in 1997. She loved the city at first sight, for its “blues skies” and “sense of possibility”. But it was the consumption of cats, not dogs, that spurred her into action.

“In 2001, my husband and I began to raise a cat and so I made some friends in an online chat forum. It wasn’t very good so we decided to make our own group. In 2002, we established [the website] Shenzhen Cat (szcat.org). Initially it was just a hobby, a way to meet kindred spirits. But then I saw an advert. It said, ‘Eat cat, feel warm.’ My home province doesn’t have this kind of tradition. We felt there was no way to accept this arcane practice and that we must do something to stop it. So we got a group of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Shenzhen cat-loving friends together and organised an awareness event. It was really great, over 100 people came, including many foreigners, and it was reported widely in the media.

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“We started to look at the issue of stray cats in Shenzhen. Many of these animals would live in the grounds of small housing communities. This is how people could get hold of them and eat them. We learned of TNR [trap, neuter, return] from our Hong Kong animal-welfare friends. I studied medicine at university so I could talk confidently with vets, cat owners and concerned people. We started to offer free consultancy services on the website and I trained volunteers to get the cats to vets for treatment. We would then feature unwanted cats online and find homes for them.”

However, problems soon emerged.

“Our houses rapidly filled-up with cats,” she says, laugh­ing. “People would call us, say there’s a cat and so you need to come and help. We were supposed to do everything! So we realised early on that committing to public education was really important.”

In 2005, Zhang and the Shenzhen Cat volunteers started organising public education events to help the emerging class of animal owners care for their felines. Zhang continued to work as a human resources manager by day but, developing a name for herself as someone driven, versatile and able to operate in a tough environment, she was soon noticed by animal-rights groups overseas, eventually winning the confidence of British-Taiwanese activist Pei-Feng Su, founder of ACTAsia.

“As I researched the issues in China and met the people concerned, I garnered a great deal of knowledge about other animals, wild and domestic, rural and urban. I started to understand that the issues regarding animals in China are many. Pei-Feng Su felt the progress of animal rights in mainland China was moving very slowly. In 2006, I helped her run animal-rights awareness courses in three cities: Shenzhen, Changsha and Beijing.”

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In 2011, ACTAsia was registered as a social enterprise in China. To coordinate efforts, Zhang has been working full time since 2013, taking a pay cut in order to tackle issues such as the illegal fur trade, bear-baiting, dog meat and animal abuse. The work has taken Zhang from hosting seminars in Beijing to educating children in the mountains of remote and impoverished Guizhou province. There have been personal costs – the decision not to have children, for instance – but Zhang’s devotion is infectious.

“From a young age, even though we weren’t a wealthy family, my parents encouraged independence,” she says. “Each month, they would give me a little money so I could buy a newspaper or a book. My mum would fix old clothes so they looked lovely. I realised you don’t need a lot of money. From our family’s perspective, enough money is enough. Instead you just need to focus on what needs doing.”

A WEEK OR SO BEFORE my trip to Yulin, Nathanael Howland – a New Englander who runs Secret Spot, a surf café and guesthouse on the Dapeng Peninsula – got in touch. He and his wife, Eva Liu, would be making a speech at Daaowan Beach to commemorate World Oceans Day in Shenzhen. He wondered if I’d like to attend.

The beach is as beautiful as any on this verdant headland, white sands flanked by drooping palms, the petrichor per­fum­ing the morning air as an assembly of local luminaries, environmentalists, fishermen and water-sports enthusiasts congregate. A green sea turtle is splashing around in a glass container – it is to be ceremoniously returned to the water.

While speeches are being made, Howland explains how he came to be involved.

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“When we came out here five years ago, Eva and I were awestruck. The beaches were deserted, the water aqua­marine and there were coral reefs for snorkelling. But over the past few years, our paradise has been lost. The reefs have been dynamited. More restaurants and hotels have opened, more tourists have arrived, but nothing has been done to deal with trash. A fisherman brought in a dead sea turtle last spring, the only wild turtle I’ve seen the entire time we’ve been here. I majored in biology so I understand what’s at stake [for Shenzhen’s coastline]. We decided to connect with a local charity to see what could be done.”

The couple found Dive For Love, one of the few approved charities operating in the area.

“I began to raise funds for Dive For Love at my bar and became friendly with the team,” he says.

Howland has subsequently worked with Dive For Love in the liberation of several green turtles from captivity.

“Restaurants buy them and put them into pools to attract customers,” he explains. “The reality is pretty grim, but there’s hope as long as somebody cares.”

A few weeks later, Dive For Love’s general secretary, Morgan Xia Jiaxiang, and co-founder, Sophie Xi Xiaoqing (known as Mao Ya, “the Cat”), agree to an interview.

“I started scuba diving in 2008,” Xia says. “It was like enter­­ing another world. As I went under the water I could feel my worries being washed away. But when I went diving in other countries, places like Indonesia, I found a much better marine environment and I began to wonder why Shenzhen’s was so bad.”

In 2012, through his network in the dive community, Xia was invited to volunteer, to help with a reef check, an annual inspection to gauge the health of the few surviving marine habitats.

“This is how I met Mao Ya and her friends, who had just established Dive For Love. They found me to be a like-minded person and I was quickly incorporated into the group.”

Xi says, “I’m from Chengdu, in Sichuan, but I’m of Mongolian ancestry.” She first came to Shenzhen in 1988 to study. After a period of jobbing around the country, she returned.

“I always felt most comfortable in this town. I like the weather and the people – it’s a migrant town, so all kinds of cultures exist here cheek by jowl. No one will judge you on account of where you come from.”

Xi eventually established a branding and marketing company but her love of animals endured.

“I’ve always raised cats and helped other people take care of them. But I was afraid of the water because I fell into an estuary as a child.”

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That all changed in 2003, when she visited Egypt and some friends coaxed her into the Red Sea.

“I discovered the water was not such a scary place and I could see all these wonderful fish.”

Xi endeavoured to learn how to swim and, by 2008, she had mastered scuba diving.

“Some friends told me Shenzhen used to have great reefs. They even showed me pictures they had taken in 2007, and it was beautiful. But dragnet fishing has taken its toll. It’s an issue with fishermen globally – as technology improves they can catch fish more efficiently. But in China, with a high population and limits on resources, the problem is exacerbated.”

Xi and her diving friends took a different perspective.

“We wondered, if places overseas can protect their fish stocks, why can’t we? That’s how Dive For Love started.”

To help me better understand what Dive For Love does, Xi takes me back to Daaowan Beach for a demon­stration of the charity’s approach, “planting coral and planting consciousness”, as she puts it.

Overlooking the beach is Dive For Love’s office, itself an expression of sustainability; the old shipping container houses a classroom where community groups learn about marine ecology.

“We work with more than 30 schools. We give them classes and activities. This is important. Children will influence their parents, their peers and ultimately their own children.”

Dive For Love produces posters, pamphlets and key rings highlighting the endangered or protected sea life to be found on the menu in Dapeng’s many seafood restaurants.

“It’s about keeping people informed, that way they can’t claim ignorance. You know, in the 90s, the economy developed very quickly. When things were going well, we all ate shark-fin soup. We had no idea how it affected the ecology of the ocean. But once we knew this was not right, we felt ashamed and compelled not just to stop eating it, but to tell others to stop as well.”

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Passing some fishermen at the water’s edge, she says, “When we first came here the villagers resisted. They thought we’d disrupt their traditional way of life. But we met the village head and assured them that, when our work is done, we’ll go.”

I gear up and boat out to Dive For Love’s pet project, a few hundred metres offshore. As we submerge, and I get used to the water, I realise what Howland and others are so concerned about; this is an ocean desert where, so close to the coast, warmed by a subtropical sun, life should abound.

We drop a metre or so by one of the conservation stations and here, and only here, swimming among the budding corals, are small fish. For anyone who has dived off the coast of the Philippines, Malaysia or even Hong Kong (which is visible across the water) our dive experience would seem underwhelming. But when Xi is back aboard the boat, she can hardly contain herself.

“They’ve grown so much!” she cries. “And did you see all the fish?”

Dive For Love’s radical effort to rebuild a natural environ­ment is paying off, albeit slowly. The pioneering design they are using for the artificial reef was made at Guangdong Ocean University, in Zhanjiang, to replicate the kind of terrain corals thrive on.

“We thought if we could bring the corals back the fish would come back as well,” Xi yells over the noise of the engine. “It’s been difficult, the water is not as warm here and there are typhoons, but if you go too deep it won’t work either, so we had to find the correct place. It required a lot of skill and perseverance to do this. In four years, our volunteers have planted 5,600 seeds in 18 locations.”

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Perhaps most remarkably, this is the work of fund­raisers, donors and volunteers, the kind of selfless individuals often deemed lacking in mercantile Chinese society by Western commentators advocating philanthropy.

“Don’t think because your strength is limited you shouldn’t go and do something,” Xi says. “That applies to everything in life. If we don’t do it, the situation will just get worse.”

It will take a generation or more for the reefs to recover and sealife to return, assuming all goes well, but it does feel as though the tide is softly turning, and a more pros­perous society is beginning to nurture more responsible people, fostered by compassionate individuals such as Xi, Zhang and the others who are willing to stand up and be counted.