African Union bans donkey skin business

Wednesday, February 21st, 2024 07:40 | By
Donkeys. PHOTO/Pexels

Animal welfare charities have welcomed an Africa-wide ban on the controversial donkey skin trade.

It will make it illegal to slaughter donkeys for their skin across the continent.

Demand for the animals’ skins is fuelled by the popularity of an ancient Chinese medicine called Ejiao, traditionally made from donkey hides.

African state leaders approved the ban at the conclusion of the African Union summit in Ethiopia on Sunday.

The charity, the Donkey Sanctuary, called the trade “brutal and unsustainable” and said it had decimated donkey populations around the world, particularly in Africa and South America.

Ejiao is believed by some to have anti-ageing and health benefits, although this is unproven. Chinese companies that make it used to use skins from donkeys sourced in China. But when the numbers of the animals in the country plummeted, they looked overseas.

“At first our governments saw this as an opportunity, and many legal slaughterhouses opened in Africa,” explained Dr Solomon Onyango from the Donkey Sanctuary in Kenya. “But, (here in Kenya), between 2016 and 2019, about half of our donkeys were killed for the trade.”

Dr Onyango told BBC News that the ban would “go a long way to safeguarding donkeys and the livelihoods of millions of people who rely on them”.

About two-thirds of world’s estimated population of 53 million donkeys are in Africa. People in the poorest, rural communities use them for transport and to carry water, food and other goods.

One recent study in Ethiopia - that set out to measure the economic value of donkeys - showed that owning one could mean the difference between destitution and a modest livelihood.

Raphael Kinoti, who is regional director of the animal welfare charity The Brooke in East Africa said this was a “terrific moment for communities in Africa who have benefitted from donkeys since time immemorial”.

“Donkey slaughter for its skin has eroded livelihoods in Africa, robbing the continent of its culture, biodiversity and identity,” he said. “We urge all AU members to uphold the decision for the good of all.”

In a recent interview with BBC, Steve narrated how he relied entirely on donkeys to sell water and make his living.

They pulled him in his cart loaded with its 20 jerry cans to all his customers. When Steve’s donkeys were stolen for their skins, he could no longer work.

That day started like most others. In the morning, he left his home in the outskirts of Nairobi and went to the field to get his animals.

“I couldn’t see them,” he recalls. “I searched all day, all night and the following day.” It was three days later that he got a call from a friend telling him he had found the animals’ skeletons. “They’d been killed, slaughtered, their skin was not there.”

Collateral damage

Donkey thefts like this have become increasingly common across many parts of Africa - and in other parts of the world that have large populations of these working animals. Steve - and his donkeys - are collateral damage in a controversial global trade in donkey skin.

Its origins are thousands of miles from that field in Kenya. In China, where Ejiao is high demand. It is believed to have health-enhancing and youth-preserving properties. Donkey skins are boiled down to extract the gelatin, which is made into powder, pills or liquid, or is added to food.

Campaigners against the trade say that people like Steve - and the donkeys they depend on - are victims of an unsustainable demand for Ejiao’s traditional ingredient.

In a new report, the Donkey Sanctuary, which has campaigned against the trade since 2017, estimates that globally at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to supply it.

And the charity says that demand is growing, although the BBC was unable to independently verify those figures.

It is very difficult to get an accurate picture of exactly how many donkeys are killed to supply the Ejiao industry.

Ejiao producers used to use skins from donkeys sourced in China. But, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs there, donkey numbers in the country plummeted from 11 million in 1990 to just under two million in 2021. At the same time, Ejiao went from being a niche luxury to become a popular, widely available product.

Chinese companies sought their skin supplies overseas. Donkey slaughterhouses were established in parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

In Africa, this led to a grim tug of war over the trade.

In Ethiopia, where the consumption of donkey meat is taboo, one of the country’s two donkey slaughterhouses was closed down in 2017 in response to public protests and social media outcry.

Media reports

Countries including Tanzania and Ivory Coast banned the slaughter and export of donkey skins in 2022, but China’s neighbour Pakistan embraces the trade.

Late last year, media reports there trumpeted the country’s first “official donkey breeding farm” to raise “some of the best breeds”.

And it is big business. According to China-Africa relations scholar Prof Lauren Johnston, from the University of Sydney, the Ejiao market in China increased in value from about $3.2b in 2013 to about $7.8b in 2020.

It has become a concern for public health officials, animal welfare campaigners and even international crime investigators. Research has revealed that shipments of donkey skins are used to traffic other illegal wildlife products. Many are worried that national bans on the trade will push it further underground.

For state leaders, there is the fundamental question: Are donkeys worth more to a developing economy dead or alive?

“Most of the people in my community are small-scale farmers and they use the donkeys to sell their goods,” says Steve. He was saving money from selling water to pay for school fees to study medicine.

Adaptable animals

Faith Burden, who is head vet at the Donkey Sanctuary, says that the animals are “absolutely intrinsic” to rural life in many parts of the world. These are strong, adaptable animals. “A donkey will be able to go for perhaps 24 hours without drinking and can rehydrate very quickly without any problems.”

But for all their qualities, donkeys do not breed easily or quickly. So campaigners fear that if the trade is not curtailed, donkey populations will continue to shrink, depriving more of the poorest people of a lifeline and a companion.

Onyango explains: “We never bred our donkeys for mass slaughter.”

Prof Johnston says that donkeys have “carried the poor” for millennia. “They carry children, women. They carried Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus,” she says.

Women and girls, she adds, bear the brunt of the loss when an animal is taken. “Once the donkey is gone, then the women basically become the donkey again,” she explains. And there is a bitter irony in that, because Ejiao is marketed primarily to wealthier Chinese women.

It is a remedy that is thousands of years old, believed to have numerous benefits from strengthening the blood to aiding sleep and boosting fertility.


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