The world’s donkey population is being decimated because of an insatiable demand in China for a gelatinous substance in their skin which is prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
Donkeys, particularly in poorer countries, are at risk of being stolen and slaughtered for their skins, according to the British-based charity The Donkey Sanctuary, which is campaigning to end the harrowing trade.
It says the skin byproduct is a key ingredient in a medicine called ejiao.
Ejiao, once the preserve of China’s emperors and other elites, is now a luxury 21st-century product which the charity says is promoted, sold and delivered worldwide.
The donkey population in China has dropped sharply – from 11 million in 1990 to an estimated 6 million in 2014 – because of the demand. Trade in the skins has now extended globally, with Africa targeted in particular.
The charity says millions of donkeys from Asia, Africa and South America are in jeopardy unless the trade can be stopped. It says the global demand for donkey skins is shocking, unsustainable, and causing suffering on a massive scale to the animals.
It is also jeopardising the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the animals for their livelihood.
The global trade is estimated to be 1.8 million skins annually, although some estimates put demand at a staggering 4 million to 10 million skins each year. The global donkey population is estimated at 44 million.
The hides are boiled to extract the gelatin/collagen and the resulting product is used for a multitude of different treatments – from cosmetic creams which are claimed to preserve youthful looks to medical cures. It is even used in edible snacks.
Before the 1990s, demand for donkey hides and skins was largely fulfilled by a ready supply within China. However, price controls imposed by authorities in 1994 hit the profitability of the industry and led to a production slump.
A surge in demand for ejiao in the past three years has resulted from the booming Chinese economy, with the medicinal and cosmetic virtues of the product being promoted heavily on the internet to a cash-rich and geographically scattered Chinese population.
The Donkey Sanctuary says demand for ejiao almost immediately outstripped the available domestic supply and it has become ever more valuable and expensive.
Traders and businessmen responded in a gold-rush style frenzy to capitalise on the extraordinary demand for donkey hides and have been scouring the earth in their search for donkeys.
Animals have been rounded up, stolen, slaughtered and skinned in rural African communities to help feed the demand for ejiao, the charity says.
Communities and individuals from Asia to Africa and South America have been affected, losing their main means of income to donkey poachers.
It is compounded by the unaffordability of a replacement, since the price of a donkey has risen far beyond the means of many impoverished families.
African authorities have reacted to the trade.
Just recently, the Ethiopian government took action against the trade in a move that will not only prevent the traders from targeting the world’s largest donkey population but safeguard the livelihoods of millions of Ethiopia’s poorest people.
The Ethiopian government’s move was welcomed by the charity, which has been campaigning for countries to follow the lead taken by Niger and Burkina Faso to ban the trade and export of donkey skins.
The sanctuary’s chief executive, Mike Baker said huge numbers of donkeys could be saved from suffering by the Ethiopian government’s decision.
“It is good news for the people of Ethiopia, too. In Ethiopia there is a saying among farmers that ‘Without a donkey, you are the donkey’. Without these incredible animals, the load of carrying goods, fuel, water and everything the community needs is shouldered by people, often women and children.”
Dr Bojia Endebu, who manages charity’s operations in Ethiopia, said the new rules were a big relief.
“Donkeys are central to Ethiopia’s agriculture and economy and the decision speaks volumes that the government values donkeys in its society; and that they have listened to their people.”
The charity says Chinese businesses have invested heavily in Ethiopia in anticipation of open access to its huge donkey population, funding the construction of at least two large abattoirs which were due to process 200 donkeys a day.
One has since been closed down by local authorities after protests from local communities.
Local authorities said that the killing of donkeys was against the “norms and culture of the people”. However, another donkey abattoir is being built by Chinese investors in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.
Ethiopia now joins Mali, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and Zimbabwe in taking action to stem the trade.
However, underlying all these different responses and reactions to the ever-growing demand for the hides is what The Donkey Sanctuary calls an unsustainable trade, the effect of which has been and will continue to be compromised animal welfare and impoverishment of families and communities.
Its report, Under the Skin, released in January, paints a grim picture of the industry.
The report, since translated into five languages, says the scale of the trade in not only hides but meat and milk has caused alarm in many sectors of society globally.
“Widespread reports in the global media describe poor animal welfare, threats to the security of rural livelihoods and food fraud.
“Until now, little specific information has been available, with patchy evidence on important issues such as numbers of donkeys slaughtered, trade routes, product prices and welfare conditions for donkeys both before and during slaughter.”
It said that virtually all countries in Africa with significant donkey populations were reporting an increase in donkey slaughter for the Chinese market.
“There appear to be two slaughter processes: slaughter in legal, government-led or government-sanctioned slaughterhouses; or small-scale ‘bush’ slaughter, which frequently involves stolen donkeys.
“Whilst donkey skins appear to be the primary product targeted during slaughter, it is also reported that donkey meat may be a lucrative product in its own right.
“Further complicating any understanding of the trade within Africa are the religious sensitivities which surround the consumption of donkey meat – it is considered ‘haram’ (forbidden) by the Muslim faith.”
The report says Chinese trade negotiations, in particular with African states, have provided legitimate and financially attractive routes for the trade of donkey products, often with significant incomes for governments, middlemen and the powerful elite.
“Whilst a few may grow rich from the trade in donkey products, there are severe welfare concerns for many of the donkeys slaughtered as a consequence of this trade, and for the impoverished communities that rely upon them as working animals.”
The report said the demand for ejiao, which was once exclusive to ancient emperors, has now become a luxury 21st-century product, promoted, sold and delivered on a global scale.
“As a consequence, between four and ten million donkeys will need to die every year in order to meet the demand for ejiao – a demand that is unsustainable, whilst simultaneously causing mass-scale suffering to donkeys and risking the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on them.
“Rural villages from Africa to South America have had their donkeys stolen, slaughtered and skinned overnight – impoverishing them in an instant and possibly changing their lives forever.”
The charity wants a halt on the trade in donkey skins to produce ejiao until the impact of the trade can be assessed and shown to be both humane for donkeys and sustainable for the communities that depend on them.
It warned that the escalating demand has resulted in a rise in the price of donkeys, making them unaffordable for the families and communities that need them most.
“This trade, in both its legal and illegal forms, results in a chain of welfare issues for the donkeys at every step, from sourcing to transport and finally to slaughter.”
“These issues can’t be ignored – the donkeys’ welfare and their real value supporting people’s livelihoods is at risk.”