Donkey skin trade leads to “absolutely horrific neglect”

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Donkeys in a feedlot in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Donkeys in a feedlot in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Neglect at the site of a proposed donkey abattoir in Zimbabwe led to the death of at least 105 animals, an investigation into the donkey skin trade has revealed.

Local animal welfare groups intervened after being alerted to the poor condition of the donkeys being kept at the feedlot in Bulawayo, owned by a Zimbabwean businessman. Many of the donkeys were severely injured, blind and emaciated, and since July 2017, a large number of animals have died at the property because of hunger, sickness and injuries. An estimated 24 donkeys were also crushed to death in overcrowded trucks in transit to the site. Since the case was exposed, 78 critically ill donkeys have been euthanized on the recommendation of veterinary professionals.

The investigation was carried out by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, and is part of an ongoing campaign by The Donkey Sanctuary and SPANA to highlight the effects of the donkey skin trade in Africa and its implications for animal welfare and livelihoods.

The donkey skin trade in Africa has been driven in recent years by an escalating demand for traditional Chinese medicine known as ejiao, a type of gelatine made from donkey skins. The trade is threatening the livelihoods of many of the continent’s most vulnerable communities, which rely on working donkeys.

In response to this threat, several African nations, including Zimbabwe, have since imposed bans or restrictions on the slaughter and exports of donkeys. However, across the continent, the theft and killing of donkeys continues on a dramatic scale.

The owner of the proposed abattoir last year announced his plan to open a slaughterhouse processing up to 70 donkeys per day, to feed the growing demand for donkey skins.

Following pressure from local animal welfare organisations, Zimbabwe’s Department of Veterinary Services ruled out any possibility of licensing a donkey abattoir business. However, more than 170 donkeys awaiting slaughter remained on the property.

Although animal cruelty attracts a minimum fine of $US200, and even potentially a prison term, in Zimbabwe, Battlefront Investments has not been charged in connection with the donkeys who have died in its custody. Today, at least 20 donkeys remain on the property, where they are regularly inspected and treated by veterinarians from SPANA and other organisations.

Law enforcement officials and village chiefs said the prospect of a donkey abattoir at Bulawayo – and the potential for high prices for hides – had also prompted a spate of donkey thefts in the region late last year.

“While this individual case in Zimbabwe is heart-breaking, it reflects the devastating global effects of the donkey skin trade,” said Alex Mayers, head of programmes at The Donkey Sanctuary .

“The Zimbabwean government’s strong stand against the trade shows them to be a model in the region for taking account of welfare and the highly important role donkeys play for everyday Zimbabweans, and we stand with them in calling for a halt to this unsustainable and inhumane trade.

“The public outcry in Zimbabwe highlights the social, cultural and economic devastation caused when donkeys are removed from their communities, and we call on governments around the world to protect their donkeys and the millions of people who rely on them.”

SPANA chief executive Geoffrey Dennis said the Zimbabwe case was an incident “of absolutely horrific animal neglect”.

“Sadly, this type of occurrence is all too common as the market for donkey skins in Africa continues to grow. That’s why SPANA is calling for an immediate halt to the donkey skin trade and enforcement of existing bans. The current trade is leading to horrific animal welfare abuses and is devastating communities across Africa.”

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