A man carrying butchered dogs drives past a pet dog at a dog meat market ahead of a dog meat festival in Yulin, Guangxi province, China, Sunday June 21, 2015. Local residents host small gatherings to consume dog meat and lychees in celebration of the summer solstice. Reuters

A controversial annual Chinese festival where thousands of dogs are killed, often in inhumane ways, for their meat and eaten began Monday in a tiny town in the southern Guangxi region, despite international calls for the festival’s ban. The 2015 Yulin Dog Meat Festival has drawn the ire of animal rights groups from around the world who say it represents animal cruelty at its worst. Photos of the event show the dogs crammed in cages and enduring cruel treatment such as beatings and being skinned alive.

The custom of eating dog meat in China dates back centuries, but acceptance for it has waned in recent years as the animals have become more popular as pets among the country’s growing urban middle class. Still, dog meat is still considered a delicacy in parts of China.

Humane Society International described the country’s dog meat trade as “horrific” and said the animals “suffer terribly as victims … for human consumption.” The dogs are often kept in appalling conditions and denied water and food.

The Yulin Dog Meat Festival was first held in 2009. Many of the dogs are stolen from urban households and from farmers by thieves who sell the dogs for “easy money,” said Andrea Gung, a representative of a California animal rights group, the Duo Duo Welfare Project. Gung said she witnessed the preparation of dogs at the Yulin festival in 2014. “Some dogs were still wagging their tails when they were being killed in the slaughterhouse,” she said.

Many of the dogs are burned or boiled alive. Others are beaten to death with poles. Despite such gruesome treatment, many said they enjoyed eating dog meat. Festivalgoers described the meat as “delicious” and “nourishing,” according to CNN.

The local Yulin government has denied the festival’s existence in the face of rising criticism. “The so-called summer solstice lychee dog meat festival does not exist,” it said in a statement from June 7. “Neither Yulin government nor social organizations have ever held such activities.”

Here are images that show what many say is the inhumane nature of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival.

Dogs for sale are seen in Dashichang dog market ahead of the dog meat festival in Yulin, China, June 21, 2015. In the market, some dogs are sold as pets, while others are sold for meat. Reuters
A woman from an animal rights group looks at a dog as she negotiates a price with a dog vendor to rescue it from dog meat dealers at the Yulin festival, June 21, 2015. Reuters
Dogs are kept in a cage at Dashichang dog market ahead of the dog meat festival in Yulin, June 21, 2015. Reuters
Butchered dogs are displayed at a vendor's stall at a dog meat market ahead the festival, June 21, 2015. Reuters
A butcher grills a butchered dog at a slaughterhouse at a dog meat market in Yulin. Reuters
A customer holds a puppy for viewing at Dashichang dog market ahead of the dog meat festival in Yulin. Reuters