Donkeys Around the Globe Are Being Stolen and Slaughtered to Supply Chinese Traditional Medicine

Imagine waking up one morning to find that every car in your town or village has been stripped of its engine and wheels. How would you get the kids to school? How will you get to work or fetch your groceries? All those journeys that we take for granted suddenly become arduous or impossible tasks.

Across the world, this is exactly what is happening—except that the precious vehicles are not cars, but donkeys. Considered the "pickup trucks" of the developing world, the vast majority of the 44 million donkeys in the world today are working animals, essential to the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most marginal communities in Africa, Asia and South America. The high socioeconomic value of the traditional beast of burden is usually invisible as they act more like an additional member of the family than as production livestock like cows, goats or chickens. This invisibility and lack of regulation make them easy targets for poaching.

But why are these livelihood assets disappearing? The answer lies in a product called ejiao. A traditional Chinese medicine with ancient roots in the Ming dynasty, ejiao was historically the preserve of royalty. Made as a gelatinous bar from donkey skin extracts and other ingredients and then melted into a drinkable tonic, its proponents claims it has health benefits such as anti-aging properties, an increase in libido and a reduction in reproductive organ disease in women.

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Eijao product sample.

But as with other Chinese traditional medicines made from animal parts, there is zero medical evidence for such claims. China's own National Health Planning Commission has recently stated that ejiao is "not worth buying" for any health benefits. In recent years, heavy marketing of the product in China through social media, celebrity endorsement and product placement in historical TV dramas has meant a dramatic increase in the price of the product. Almost simultaneously, the national population of donkeys in China has halved from 11 million in 1990 to 5.4 million in 2016 according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.


Donkeys work at a construction site in Fez, Morocco. (image: Oliver Laumann/Flickr)

Donkeys are poorly suited to intensive rearing due to slow reproductive rates, long pregnancies and susceptibility to stress in intensive systems, yet supply is sought by the ejiao industry which is estimated to require 4 million donkey skins per year, and demand is reported to be rising. As Chinese donkey populations are drastically falling, the leading company is reported to have said their imported skins have gone from 5-10 percent of their supply five years ago to nearly 50 percent now. Four million skins per year represent nearly 10 percent of the estimated global population, and the most vulnerable populations are some of the easiest targets to fill the gap in supply.

We first started investigating reports into thefts and illegal slaughter across Africa in 2016 and quickly started to uncover the scale of the threat. Communities from Egypt to Mexico, Tanzania to Peru, South Africa to Pakistan were reporting donkeys being stolen in the night, killed and stripped of their skins with the meat and carcasses left to rot. Countries such as Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali quickly halted slaughter and exports due to the serious threat to the way of life, particularly in the dry, Sahel regions. Niger compared losses of 27,000 in 2015 with over 80,000 in the first nine months of 2016 and quickly acted to try and halt the trade. Pakistan became the first Asian country to halt the export of skins to protect its population of 4.9 million donkeys and to prevent the threat of unwanted donkey meat entering the human food chain masquerading as beef.

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A donkey market in Tanzania.

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Donkeys await slaughter in Kenya.

The impact of the explosion in demand for donkeys on animal welfare has been devastating, especially as the species is so often invisible and unprotected in law. Even where licensed slaughterhouses have been set up, there are no controls over sourcing, transport, holding, handling, slaughter or the environmental pollution that such slaughterhouses have produced. Pregnant mares, diseased and very young donkeys are being sourced, leading to stress-related deaths, miscarriages and an increased risk of disease spread.

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Above: Beneton factory in Dong’e, China, 2016. (image: George Knowles)

Transport to slaughter is almost universally substandard and methods of slaughter can be inhumane. South African prosecutors have seen shocking cases where donkeys have been skinned alive and others where donkeys were dehydrated and starved to death; the skin retains the same value regardless of the treatment of the animal so unlike a meat trade, there is little incentive for skin traders to manage welfare.

As there is no way to identify or regulate the numbers of donkeys being sourced from each community, it is impossible to ensure the sustainability of human livelihoods, even if their precious donkeys were legitimately sold to a middleman. A short-term cash injection of $100 per donkey may seem highly desirable today, but when research shows the net economic value of a working equid in Kenya is up to $2,272 annually over a 20+ year working life, the deal suddenly looks a lot worse. With donkey prices increasing by 325 percent in six months in Kenya, if an owner realized they made a bad decision or had their donkey stolen, finding a replacement is increasingly unviable.

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Donkey skins from Ghana

After sourcing and slaughter, donkey skins shipments of donkey skins present similar logistical challenges to other illegal goods, and the Donkey Sanctuary and National Geographic linked donkey skin shipments to the smuggling of tiger skins, pangolin scales, abalone shells, cocaine and even land mines.

The most recent FAO population data is ringing alarm bells around the world. Between 2015 and 2016, Botswana’s population has fallen 26 percent from 178,400 to 141,889. India’s has fallen by 21 percent and Kyrgyzstan has fallen by 25 percent. China's own donkeys were depleted by 400,000 in the same period. While at least 15 countries are cracking down on the trade such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Botswana which have all closed their slaughterhouses in 2017, other countries are stepping up the pace at a frighteningly unsustainable speed.

Kenya is the last remaining country in east Africa with licensed slaughterhouses and a recent report suggests the population has halved from 1.8 million to 900,000 in the last eight years with one government vet fearing a total loss of donkeys within six years. Richer nations such as Australia which are considering establishing a trade are facing a backlash for looking to expand and legitimise an unsustainable demand that is so devastating to livelihoods elsewhere in the world. Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has recently identified a new donkey hide trader in Seattle, Washington, meaning American donkeys may soon be at risk.

Whether we feel emotionally attached to donkeys as an amazing species, whether we feel a debt to them for their millennia of tireless and continuing service to humanity, or whether we simply feel the unsustainable harvesting of a resource is unjustified, there is little about the donkey skin trade that can be defended.

Read The Donkey Sanctuary's full report, "Under the Skin."

Watch The Donkey Sanctuary's "Under the Skin" video.


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