The trade in donkey skins for use in traditional Chinese remedies is placing Namibia’s working donkey populations at great risk, according to The Donkey Sanctuary.
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.
The Donkey Sanctuary has been successfully campaigning for countries to follow the lead taken by Niger and Burkina Faso to ban the trade and export of donkey skins. They have since been joined by Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia and Zimbabwe in taking action to stem the trade.
Concerned groups are to meet in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, to consider how best to raise awareness about the issue and to protect Namibia’s working donkeys from the trade. The SPCA Windhoek and Namibia’s SPCA will be joined by The Donkey Sanctuary, which is spearheading international efforts to halt the trade.
However, Namibia remains but one country among many still losing these crucial working animals to the hide trade.
Submissions closed on August 31 for a public consultation on a new donkey abattoir in Outjo, Namibia, that would aim to process 70 donkeys a day.
The Donkey Sanctuary, in its submission, called on Namibia to learn from the lessons from across Africa and the world.
Trade ‘devastating to people’
The trade, it said, had proved devastating to people, animals and the environment. The charity presented figures that pointed to the alarming effects of the trade on the nation’s donkey population.
United Nations figures show that Namibia’s donkey population was 159,028 in 2014.
While this may not be completely accurate, harvesting as many as 70 donkeys per day for Outjo’s proposed abattoir, conservatively assuming 300 days of slaughter per year, meant the donkey population could fall by 21,000 a year.
With a second slaughterhouse under consideration in Okahandja with similar capacity (another 21,000 a year), the total number of donkeys passing through the abattoirs would be nearly one third of the current population every year.
“If these abattoirs open for business, Namibia’s population of donkeys are at great risk,” said Alex Mayers, the head of programmes for The Donkey Sanctuary.
“Every African country that has tried licencing a donkey abattoir has also been plagued with massive theft and/or sale for illegal and informal slaughter.
“As a species, donkeys are slow to reproduce, with pregnancy lasting around 12 months and foals taking several more years to mature. When all factors are taken into account, the donkey population in Namibia would likely disappear in three years.”
The Donkib Cultural Group, which represents donkey-dependent communities in Namibia, has issued a powerful plea to halt the approval of the abattoirs.
In a statement, Abner Axel Xoagub, project manager at Donkib, said: “Donkeys play a very crucial role in the lives of the poor and the farmers in the rural areas.
“They are the only means of transport – they take children to the schools, collect water, work the land, transport families to the towns and transport brides and grooms.
“Without donkeys, the communities will be dormant, stagnant and poor … we are appealing to the Namibian government and all stakeholders to halt the abattoirs and any plans to export donkey products, until we have conducted proper studies and put in place all the needed legal instruments and control measures before embarking on the above.
“We have been with people whose donkeys were stolen, or forcibly sold to middlemen involved in [the] donkey meat trade. Imagine if the abattoir and export markets open – what kind of a situation are we going to have?”
An investigation released this month by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism detailed the concerns from the local community in Outjo regarding the proposed abattoir.
Along with concerns about low availability of donkeys locally and a lack of public consultation to discuss the issues, the residents fear that the abattoir, with a projected daily water consumption rate of 50 cubic metres, may worsen water shortages in a town that has an underground water supply capacity of only 12 cubic metres a day.
The slaughter of a single donkey requires up to 2500 litres of water, according to statistics from the Namibia Abattoirs Association.
Donkeys, particularly in poorer countries, are at risk of being stolen and slaughtered for their skins to fuel the trade. A 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 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.
Surge in demand for ejiao
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.
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.
Grim picture in report
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 meant it was now 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.”
Halt to trade sought
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.”