BEIJING — A mass grave of animals that died of illness and malnutrition has been found at a zoo in China, state media said Tuesday, again throwing the spotlight on poor conditions at the nation's wildlife parks.
The discovery in the northeastern city of Harbin comes just weeks after authorities in Shenyang, also in the northeast, said they were investigating a zoo where three dozen animals had died, amid allegations of parts harvesting.
Workers at the Harbin Northern Forest Zoo dug the three-metre (10-feet) deep pit last year to bury the dead animals, including lions, tigers and leopards, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
It was unclear exactly how many had died and over what period, but the report said the pit was believed to contain 30 to 40 carcasses.
Quoting statistics divulged by frustrated employees, the report added that in the first half of 2008, 14 animals -- including endangered white tigers and white lions -- had died from malnutrition.
Zhang Xinru, the deputy head of the feeding department at the zoo, told Xinhua the establishment had decided to make changes to the animals' food regimes in 2007 to save money.
Lions and tigers were fed chicken meat and bones to partly replace beef and lamb, and some keepers even gave their lions corn buns instead of meat, the report said.
When zoo officials realised the animals were dying, they changed the feeding pattern again but animals were still suffering from malnutrition, it added.
A zoo spokeswoman, who refused to be named, denied the report, saying the animals had died under normal circumstances of old age or illness. She refused to comment further.
China has more than 200 zoos, according to the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens. But only large zoos in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai receive government funding and attention, state media say.
The report quoted Zou Ximing, deputy head of the Harbin zoo, as saying workers were doing their utmost to guarantee the animals' health.
He added the zoo was suffering from lack of funds, and it had dug the pit -- which they were regularly disinfecting -- because they had no money to build an incinerator.
The zoo in Shenyang was closed earlier this month following the deaths of 13 endangered Siberian tigers, as reports surfaced that the dead animals may have been used to produce tiger-bone liquor, seen as a tonic to boost virility.
Tiger parts, such as penises and bones, have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to increase sexual potency or treat certain illnesses.
China banned all trade in tiger bones and related products in 1993, and is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which also bars such sales. (AFP)