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For many of the world’s poorest communities, donkeys are fundamental to existence. Helping to transport goods to market, and carrying water and wood, they give access to vital sources of income, and can make the difference between destitution and survival.
And yet these often much-valued animals have never been more under threat.
According to the charity The Donkey Sanctuary, their numbers in some countries are collapsing due to the huge appetite for their skins to feed the Chinese herbal market (see pp 714-715).
Donkey skins are used to produce ejiao – a gelatine manufactured by boiling them. There is no credible evidence base for its use, but practitioners recommend it for a range of reasons – as a ‘blood tonic’, to ‘moisten lungs’, for dizziness, insomnia, for anti-aging, easing the symptoms of chemotherapy or to enhance libido.
Following some clever product placement in a soap opera in 2010, ejiao products have become highly sought-after by China’s much expanded middle-class. Available widely in China, they can also be bought online on Amazon and Alibaba (eBay and Gumtree have suspended all sales and listings). According to Simon Pope, the sanctuary’s campaigns manager, ejiao can trade at around $350 per kilogram.
This lucrative market is now unsettled – there are simply not enough donkeys left to serve its needs.
With its own domestic supply of donkeys inadequate for some years, China has been busy sourcing them from elsewhere – offering dollars for skins with enthusiastic take up, particularly in Africa. Currently around three million skins per year are supplied internationally – and it is this that is exerting unprecedented pressure on donkey populations.
Equine charities that monitor trading activity say the trade has led to a complex web of unregulated supply routes associated with criminal activity. Many donkeys are stolen from farms and homes and perpetrators are often linked to the illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products, as well as drug dealing and, even, terrorism.
Against this backdrop, the cruel and often illegal treatment of donkeys by local traders is rife.
The sanctuary’s recent report ‘Under the Skin’ says many donkeys experience horrendous and inexcusable suffering. Sourcing is often indiscriminate so young foals and mares in the late stages of pregnancy enter the trade, as well as sick and injured donkeys. Animals are often transported long distances for days on end in overcrowded trucks without food, water or rest. In some cases, up to 20 per cent will be dead when they arrive for slaughter.
In the three years since the sanctuary issued its first warnings about the donkey skin trade, there has been some progress. The combined lobbying efforts of the largest equine charities – Brooke, Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad, World Horse Welfare as well as The Donkey Sanctuary – have resulted in 18 countries taking action to protect donkeys, such as Pakistan, Ghana and Uganda.
Most recently, Nigeria, which is thought to have lost up to one million donkeys per year to the trade, has introduced a Bill prohibiting the slaughter of donkeys for their skin.
But there is a need for constant vigilance – with such a significant clamp on supply, traders are already looking for alternative supply routes in the region. Elsewhere in East Africa, it is only Kenya that is isolated in its lack of action. It remains a significant supplier, operating four donkey-only abattoirs.
It seems that pressure is mounting on China to end its reliance on the international donkey skin trade and build its own sustainable domestic supply. Far better is the option of producing artificially grown donkey-derived collagen as a new ingredient – something that ejiao producers are, to their credit, actively exploring.
Millions of donkeys may have died for nothing
But this very sad tale ends with a very sad irony – researchers in this field tell me that ejiao is not always sold in its pure form but enhanced with other substances, for example, female hormones. Any ‘health benefits’ derived by ejiao consumers may well be due to other substances. If that’s true then millions of donkeys have died – and will continue to die for some time yet – for nothing.
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