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By Vivi Lin
HARBIN, China, Jan 19 (Reuters Life!) - Fur may have fallen out of favour with some fashion designers and shoppers concerned about animal welfare, but breeding animals for their pelts is a thriving industry in northeastern China.
China is a major exporter of fur garments and the number of fur farms have mushroomed in the past ten years, especially in the cold, northern region of Heilongjiang.
A group of scientists is now helping locals improve the breeding rates of animals such as mink and fox through artificial insemination and other means, according to Liu Zhiping, who heads the university research team helping the farmers.
"A group of foxes does not give birth naturally to many cubs a year, so if you want to see a lot of fur in the market from a certain breed of furry animals, we need to introduce the technology of artificial insemination," said Liu, a professor at the Northeastern Forestry University of China.
Some wild species such as Red and Arctic foxes and raccoon dogs are being bred in farms, and the team hopes that will also help improve the quality of the fur they produce.
"What we are doing now is researching the different varieties of fox breeds. If foxes are inbred, the quality of the species will degenerate, so to prevent that from happening, we need to do experiments to be able to retain good genes," said Bai Yuyan, a member of the research team.
Statistics about production volumes, revenues and exports are few and far between, and Bai said that was because the fur industry does not gain enough attention from the government.
She said most of the region's buyers were from neighbouring Russia, where many people bulk up against the bitter winter by wearing fur. She said this year, farmers were more cautious about production due to the economic recession, adding that the industry was expected to be impacted in some way.
According to local industry experts, the level of fur production in northeastern China has been increasing steadily by 10 percent per year since 2004.
A growing number of international fur traders, processors and fashion designers have gradually shifted their business to China, according to a forum held by the China Leather and Fur Association in November.
Industry analysts say cheap labour and the absence of animal rights' protection regulations in the country are encouraging the controversial industry, which has been lambasted by animal rights groups that say the animals are often skinned alive.
Chinese authorities have called the animal groups' reports exaggerated. Liu said he hoped critics of the fur industry would also consider its conservationist side.
"By raising captive animals, we can save the wild ones at the same time. It takes far more effort to hunt a wild animal than to raise one, so by farming these animals, we are playing an important role in protecting their wild counterparts," he said.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy and Emma Graham-Harrison)