Jaguars are being poached and boiled down into a treacle-like paste to be sold as medicine on the Chinese black market, according to a wildlife charity.
:: Contains pictures of dead jaguars that some may find upsetting
World Animal Protection (WAP) says it has discovered proof of the trade, which sees big cats from the South American country of Suriname killed and processed for export.
Their bodies are melted down and sold in tubs in the belief that the product can treat arthritis pain, aid sexual performance and provide other health benefits.
In images obtained by the charity, one dead jaguar is seen tied up and suspended from its feet, and another is pictured next to a woman posing for the camera.
A video also shows a dead jaguar fastened to a small tractor.
WAP says the jaguars endure “prolonged suffering” as they are stalked and shot several times before being killed by a bullet to the head.
Orders for the jaguars are reportedly made on social media, by phone, and through the personal networks of the poachers and dealers.
The market is partly driven by the fact that half of Suriname’s population lives in poverty, with some local miners said to believe that a jaguar is worth around 20 grams of gold.
The jaguars’ teeth are also used in the jewellery trade and younger animals are being sold as pets.
According to WAP, the cubs are fed milk or sugar water as part of an “entirely unsuitable” diet and are kept in cages until they grow, and sometimes then killed to eat.
Some of the Chinese population of Suriname are said to consider jaguar meat a delicacy.
Nicholas Bruschi, WAP investigations adviser, said: ”This investigation has uncovered a shocking underground trade exploiting an iconic animal of the South American rainforests in a barbaric way for unproven traditional Asian medicine.
“Jaguars already face the challenges of habitat destruction and human animal conflicts. They are now cruelly and needlessly killed, left to die agonising deaths.
“It is extremely sad news for these incredible big cats, whose numbers are already in decline.
“And, while jaguar cubs might seem very cute, they are still wild animals and belong in the wild, not in the illegal pet trade.”
The vulnerability of the jaguar is being exacerbated by habitat loss, with mining and logging in Suriname – the smallest country in South America – meaning the normally reclusive animals are becoming more visible.
It is estimated there are 173,000 jaguars left in the wild and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classes them as “near threatened”.
The union says their numbers have reduced by up to 25% over the past two decades and they are listed as regionally extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay.
As well as Suriname, the cats can still be found in Argentina, Brazil. Colombia and a number of other South American countries, plus the US.