Protection, respect sought for Ethiopia’s working donkeys

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Ethiopian cattle farmer Samuna with her donkey.
Ethiopian cattle farmer Samuna with her donkey. © The Donkey Sanctuary

New research has revealed that Ethiopia’s national donkey herd is critically undervalued and faces a significant threat from the global skin trade.

Ethiopia has about 8.8 million donkeys, the largest population in Africa. These animals are often visible in rural areas — on roadsides carrying vital supplies of clean water and firewood for homesteads or pulling carts with goods to trade at market.

Less visible is the contribution they make to the development and support of people’s livelihoods in semi-urban and urban environments. In these areas, they provide transport, food security and income generation as well as freeing up women for work and enabling their children to go to school.

The study carried out by international animal welfare charity The Donkey Sanctuary in conjunction with researchers from Bristol University’s Veterinary School and the London School of Economics, highlighted several key themes on why working animals should be included in policymaking in Ethiopia and across African countries:

  • donkeys are generators of income;
  • donkeys can enhance social status;
  • working with and owning donkeys empowers women in particular and helps address gender imbalance;
  • donkeys reduce social vulnerability and encourage resilience;
  • donkeys provide companionship as sentient beings.

Donkeys are not included in livestock development programmes or economic policies in Ethiopia. Owners are thus left exposed and often fall victim to the escalating skin trade and global demand for raw materials to make a traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao.

Children collecting water in Bulbulla, central Ethiopia.
Children collecting water in Bulbulla, central Ethiopia. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Focusing on four locations in the Oromia region of central Ethiopia, researchers investigated the role donkeys play in shaping human livelihoods. It was found that donkeys develop and sustain livelihoods and generate income for the most marginalised communities; it also found that their economic contribution is overlooked in development policy and needs urgent revaluation. The research highlights the need to include donkeys in livestock and food security frameworks.

Dr Zoe Raw, Head of Global Research at The Donkey Sanctuary said: “Working donkeys and mules are the backbone of rural economies in Ethiopia. They play a central and critical role in supporting poor and rural communities, providing people with a means to earn a living, transport goods, collect water or enable their children to access education. Unfortunately, the remote and marginalised nature of these communities means that they are often overlooked by national or global policy.”

The skin trade is an additional challenge for these undervalued animals with the escalating demand for their skins as raw material in the production of traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao.

There is a common saying in Ethiopia:” A farmer or woman without a donkey becomes the donkey.”

The research revealed donkeys to be a critical source of support to households, creating economic security, empowerment to marginalised groups — including women and the very poor -– as well as providing a sense of companionship to their owners. Having access to the traditional beast of burden gives women the opportunity for a less marginalised, more productive role in society.

One donkey owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “I speak to my community members about the benefits of having donkeys and I advise people to buy donkeys. People who do not own donkeys are under-privileged, not respected and underestimated. They are the poorest of the community. Those who don’t have donkeys are in definite poverty.”

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