Poachers have killed about 2,000 sharks in a marine sanctuary off the coast of Colombia, apparently trying to capitalize on high demand for shark-fin soup in China, the Guardian reports.

A team of divers in the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary reported the incident to Colombian authorities after seeing 10 fishing boats flying the Costa Rican flag inside the wildlife preserve. Upon further inspection, the divers found hundreds of hammerhead, Galapagos and silky sharks floating dead and finless below the surface.

"I received a report, which is really unbelievable, from one of the divers who came from Russia to observe the large concentrations of sharks in Malpelo," says Sandra Bessudo, the top environmental adviser to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "They saw a large number of fishing trawlers entering the zone illegally. When the divers dove, they started finding a large number of animals without their fins. They didn't see any alive."

Based on an estimate of 200 sharks per boat, Bessudo tells the Guardian that "as many as 2,000 sharks may have been killed." The Malpelo sanctuary covers more than 3,300 square miles and protects a variety of sea life, but sharks are one of its most high-profile inhabitants. Not only have divers reported seeing huge schools of hammerhead and silky sharks there, but Malpelo is also one of the only places on Earth where the rare short-nosed ragged-toothed shark — aka the "Malpelo monster" — is known to exist. The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006.

On top of its large shark populations, the size and remoteness of Malpelo makes it appealing for poachers, the Guardian reports. Colombia's navy periodically patrols the area, and even has an outpost on Malpelo island, which is 36 hours from the closest port. But no patrol ships were nearby when the recent killings took place.

Colombia has pressed Costa Rica's foreign ministry about the massacre, which responded that it "energetically condemns" shark finning and will prosecute any Costa Rican ships found to have participated. The divers were able to identify names on three of the alleged poaching boats: the Marco Antonio, the Jefferson and the Papante.

An estimated 73 million sharks are killed every year to supply fins for shark fin soup, a status symbol in Chinese cuisine, and the fins are often cut off while the sharks are still alive. Many fishermen then simply dump the finless bodies back into the water, which is what seems to have happened in Malpelo. Conservationists say the practice threatens several shark species with extinction, and a growing number of countries have recently banned shark finning, including the Bahamas, Chile, Fiji, Honduras, the Maldives, Palau and Taiwan. The sale of shark fins is also illegal in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. California passed a similar ban this year that will take effect in 2013.

[Via Guardian]

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

'Huge' shark massacre reported in Colombia
Divers find 10 fishing boats and 2,000 dead sharks inside a marine preserve.