Donkeys continue to be stripped from vulnerable communities around the world to fuel Chinese demand for a traditional remedy made from their skins, with China’s announcement of a tariff reduction on hides labelled a backwards step.
Leading charity The Donkey Sanctuary repeated its call for a halt to the international trade in donkey skins and voiced its dismay over the tariff cut.
“We are disappointed that the Chinese government has chosen to reduce the import tax on donkey skins,” the charity’s head of programs, Alex Mayers, said.
The Chinese government has dropped the import tariff from 5 percent to 2 percent.
It has been reported that, in 2016 alone, China imported 3.5 million donkey hides, from an estimated global donkey population of 44 million.
Last year, the charity revealed the shocking consequences of the global donkey skin trade that has emerged to meet the demand for the Chinese medicine, ejiao.
“From Tanzania to Peru, South Africa to Pakistan, donkeys across the world are being stolen and skinned in the night, their carcasses found by distraught owners and their skins imported into China,” Mayers said.
“For millions of people in some of the world’s poorest communities, donkeys are still the main means of livelihood and sustain families by providing them with an income and independence. This latest news from China is sadly a backwards step for donkeys and for communities that rely on them.”
The world’s donkey population is being decimated, the charity says, because of the insatiable demand in China for the gelatinous substance in their skin.
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 Sanctuary has had some success in its campaign for countries to ban the trade and export of donkey skins.
Africa has been heavily targeted as a source of skins. They are, for many people, the only means of transport – they take children to school, collect water, work the land, transport families to the towns. Their loss has a major impact on such communities.
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 skins has now extended globally.
The Donkey Sanctuary 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 jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the animals for an income.
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 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.
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
The Donkey Sanctuary’s report, Under the Skin, released a year ago, 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 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.”