Three men in southwestern China are to be prosecuted for killing a panda and trading its meat, a state news report says. Hunting the animal carries a 10 year prison sentence, and in some cases the death penalty.
Two brothers and a trader are to stand trial for shooting the panda in a forest near the poverty-stricken city of Zhaotong, in China's Yunnan province, and selling on the meat.
Wang Wenlin and Wang Wencai told police they mistook the adult female panda for a more common species of bear, the state news agency Xinhua cited prosecutors as saying on Wednesday.
One of the Wang brothers claimed to have set up a trap after finding that his sheep had been killed by wild animals, the report says. After he found the trap was broken, the pair spotted and followed footprints to track down the injured creature, which they shot dead.
The brothers ate and kept some of the meat but sold the rest of it, along with the animal's four paws, to trader Li Kequan, Xinhua reported. Li traded some of the meat with other people.
More pandas living nearby
Police had initially suspected the meat came from a bear, but confirmed it belonged to an adult female panda through a DNA test. Pandas have not been sighted in Yunnan province for centuries, but investigators who combed the area after the killing concluded that more of the animals must have been living in the vicinity.
Pandas have a special place in the hearts of most Chinese, with special protections in place for the animals
Ten people were initially detained after the panda's skin, along with meat and body parts - including the skull and liver - were discovered in December last year.
Although there is a thriving black market in exotic animal parts in China, the reverence for pandas means that it is rare to hear of panda meat being sold.
The case was first reported in May, when it caused a furious outcry on social media in the country. Among the suggested punishments were North Korea-style execution by anti-aircraft gun, firing squad or beheading.
Tough sanctions for transgressors
Under Chinese law, killing protected animals such as pandas can result in a jail sentence of up to 10 year. The Chinese government warned in 1987 that killing pandas could even result in the death penalty.
The giant panda is most abundant in the mountainous Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, with some 1,864 living in the wild, according to a recent survey. That figure is 268 up on a 2003 study. More than 300 pandas are living in captivity.
The World Wide Fund for Nature says poaching has declined as a threat to wild pandas, but economic development has become a major threat. Hydropower plants, roads, and mining projects, which disrupt the animal's natural habitat, have become major concerns.
rc/bw (AP, AFP, dpa)