Ethiopia moves to protect working donkeys from China’s skin trade

Working donkeys in Ethiopia. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Asia’s donkey skin trade is “a ticking time bomb” if immediate action is not taken to ensure effective biosecurity measures, delegates to a world-first meeting in Ethiopia on protecting the country’s national donkey herd from the global trade have been told.

Experts from Ethiopia and the UK gathered in Addis Ababa late last month in a joint initiative by the Ethiopian Government and the world’s largest equine welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, to discuss the issues surrounding farming and breeding of donkeys, and the crucial socio-economic role that donkeys play in supporting livelihoods and gender equality in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is home to the world’s largest population of donkeys, and has been identified as a valuable source of donkey skin supply which is used in the manufacture of the traditional Chinese medicine, ejiao. The skins are boiled to extract collagen, which is the main ingredient of the remedy.

Moves by the ejiao industry to establish donkey slaughterhouses in Ethiopia were met with substantial public opposition and the export trade for skins has faltered.

Expert speakers included Dr Getachew Mulugeta, who warned the donkey skin trade is a ticking time bomb if immediate action is not taken to ensure effective biosecurity measures.

Dr Sahlu Mulu, Special Adviser to Ethiopia’s Agriculture Minister, said integral to the discussions was the need for an assurance that the country’s national donkey herd was protected.

A donkey owner loads water containers.
A donkey owner loads water containers. © The Donkey Sanctuary

“The livelihoods and the futures of the poorest Ethiopians will be threatened if we do not meet this goal.”

He also warned of placing too much expectation on the economic benefits of a trade in donkeys: “There is no evidence that large numbers of donkeys exist as a potential supply chain in our country. We must avoid building hope and expectations about seams of gold that exist only in the minds of their prospectors.”

The Donkey Sanctuary CEO Mike Baker said the cultural connection between Ethiopia’s donkeys and its people is not found anywhere else in the world.

“This has to be preserved and cannot be put at risk by the uncertain financial expectations of the donkey skin trade. Donkeys provide a lifeline of independent and income for millions of Ethiopians and we cannot afford to put that at risk at any price.”

Evidence also emerged of an illegal cross-border trade in donkeys between Ethiopia and Kenya. The findings, published by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism and funded by The Donkey Sanctuary, revealed that donkeys are being poached in Ethiopia before enduring a 250km journey in an arid environment, through difficult terrain with no water and scarce feeding, to the Moyale cross-border cities.

Cross-border trade: Donkeys are smuggled into Kenya from Tanzania via Namanga, and from Ethipio via Moyale
Cross-border trade: Donkeys are smuggled into Kenya from Tanzania via Namanga, and from Ethipio via Moyale. © Oxpeckers / The Donkey Sanctuary

They are then reportedly trucked to the slaughterhouses in Naivasha and Baringo. Enduring a 2-3-day journey by truck to donkey slaughterhouses in Naivasha in Kenya.

A donkey smuggler told Oxpeckers: “There is a higher demand for hides now, which coincided with the increased unwillingness to sell among Kenyan donkey owners. That has forced the slaughterhouse managers in Naivasha and Baringo to buy donkeys from Kenyan and Ethiopian cross-border traders.

“Every day trucks arrive from the Moyale border with donkeys from Ethiopia going to Naivasha. Nowadays there are more Ethiopian than Kenyan donkeys being slaughtered here,”

The Ethiopian Government has committed to forming a technical working group in order to fully understand and identify all potential opportunities and challenges the trade presents, to encourage a full and thorough analysis of political, economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts.

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