Animal welfare agencies have joined forces to save more than 100 donkeys in South Africa from certain death as part of the skin trade.
It is believed the donkeys, including foals, were en route from South Africa to neighbouring Lesotho where it is thought they would be slaughtered so their skins could be used for the production of traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao.
The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) with the assistance of the Mooi River SPCA and supported by international animal welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, stepped in to rescue the donkeys, in what they suspect is a “shocking return of the donkey-skin trade after almost 18 months of apparent inactivity”.
Authorities from the SPCA found the donkeys, including several young foals, after intercepting a convoy of trucks heading from the Mooi River region in KwaZulu-Natal to the border with Lesotho – a country seeing an escalation in the illegal skin trade for the production of ejiao.
The donkeys were suffering with severe infections as well as open wounds and some even had ears missing. Many of the animals were extremely thin with ribs showing through their hides. They were also infested with ticks.
Officers from the South African Police Service (SAPS) arrested six suspects travelling with the donkeys for having no passports of their own or legal travel permits for the animals and on suspicion of animal cruelty. All six have since been charged and found guilty of animal cruelty and for residing in South Africa illegally.
Some 36 jennies (mares) and their foals were despatched to the Kloof and Highway SPCA facility near Durban. The remaining donkeys travelled to the Johannesburg SPCA, where they will continue to be cared for until they can be rehomed. The Donkey Sanctuary was able to support the NSPCA with funding for the transportation costs.
NSPCA Executive Director Marcelle Meredith said the NSCPA began investigating the donkey skin trade more than five years ago when large numbers of unexplained donkey skins were found across multiple farms.
Gelatine found in donkey hides is a key ingredient in producing ejiao. Dwindling supplies of donkeys in China means traders in Africa and elsewhere are exporting additional skins to meet an ever-increasing demand.
The trade has led to widespread poaching and donkey theft in communities, which depend on donkeys for their livelihoods.
“The manner in which donkey skins are obtained is gut-wrenching – starting from the way the animals are handled, transported, butchered and sometimes even skinned alive,” Meredith said.
Grace de Lange, Senior Inspector from NSPCA’s Farm Animal Protection Unit said the support of The Donkey Sanctuary meant that the NSPCA could focus its efforts and funding appeals on the long-term welfare, veterinary needs and re-homing of the donkeys, which had suffered terrible neglect and abuse at the hands of animal traders.
The Donkey Sanctuary’s Tactical Response Lead Simon Pope said the NSPCA was working “incredibly hard” to combat the illegal skin trade in South Africa. “Grace and her team are on the front-line of that battle. This rescue of donkeys destined for slaughter is inspirational. So too is the devotion and care now being given to these hard-working animals.”
Pope said the continued generosity of The Donkey Sanctuary’s supporters enabled the charity to share some of the burden of care with the NSPCA. The Donkey Sanctuary is calling for an urgent halt to the largely unregulated global skin trade, and de Lange added that authorities in South Africa must also play their part in halting the trade.
“Other countries in the region, such as Botswana, Ethiopia and Senegal have taken action and we are calling for immediate government intervention to stop the export from South Africa of donkeys, as well as their skins or by-products for any trade whatsoever,” de Lange said.
The Donkey Sanctuary and the NSPCA will continue to work tirelessly not only to end the cruel and unnecessary global skin trade but also to improve the welfare and working lives of donkeys globally.