Imagine waking up one morning and finding out that your livelihood was gone. Your means of providing for your family, sending your children to school, and paying the mortgage: it had all simply disappeared overnight.
That’s the reality facing people all over Africa who rely on working donkeys.
About 600 million people around the world depend on working animals, with the majority of donkey owners based in Africa. These animals underpin the livelihoods of the world’s poorest communities, pulling goods to market, taking children to schools and hospitals and carrying water to remote communities. The role of a working donkey in developing countries cannot be overstated.
But thefts of the hardworking animals have skyrocketed over the past three years – and it’s all down to a seemingly insatiable consumer demand for a traditional Chinese medicine made from donkey skins known as ‘ejiao’.
Ejiao is a product used in traditional Chinese medicines and beauty products, made by boiling donkey skins down into a gelatinous substance. The paste is then used in a range of serums, tonics, tablets and sweets.
Many consumers see the product as a miracle ‘panacea’, with Chinese ejiao manufacturers claiming their product has a huge range of health benefits, from smoothing wrinkles to improving sleep, curing anaemia, and boosting energy and libido.
It’s also tremendously valuable, with retailers regularly selling ejiao anti-wrinkle pastes and creams for more than £300 per kilogram. For many people, using a luxury ejiao product has become a status symbol, and manufacturers have started marketing to a younger, cash-rich audience.
Previously, manufacturers sourced the donkey skins from Chinese farms, but the surge in consumer demand has outstripped local supplies, with the country’s donkey population dropping from 11 million in 1990 to about six million in 2014.
Manufacturers seeking new sources of raw materials looked to Africa, which has seen brisk trade in donkey skins emerge, sending the price of an animal soaring and leading to widespread donkey thefts. Nations from the north-west of the continent to South Africa have been affected. Our SPANA staff report that people are almost too scared to sleep in case their donkeys are stolen and slaughtered at night.
In Kenya, donkey prices quadrupled in six months. Mali has seen prices double. In countries where the trade and export of donkey skins hasn’t been banned, the cost of a working donkey now puts them out of reach for many animal owners.
SPANA works closely with communities in many affected countries, including Mali, Botswana and Zimbabwe, where we witness first-hand the devastating effects of this trade.
The legal status of the donkey skin trade in Africa varies country by country, but we’re seeing a growing push towards bans on the slaughter and export of donkeys and donkey products. At least 10 African countries have now announced bans on the trade, but there’s still a long way to go. In some cases, bans have simply pushed the trade underground, and donkeys transported or slaughtered on the black market are often treated appallingly.
We’ve been working closely with governments to highlight the urgent need to clamp down on the industry before donkey populations are completely decimated. An abattoir in Zimbabwe, which was fortunately banned following lobbying from SPANA and other organisations, had proposed to slaughter about 12,000 donkeys a year. That would have equated to a loss of almost one tenth of the country’s donkey population in just 12 months.
SPANA is also working directly with communities – advising animal owners about the long term economic impact of selling their working animals and providing practical support, including funding the construction of secure fencing and corrals to help tribespeople keep their donkeys safe from theft.
But ending such a lucrative trade won’t happen overnight. It’s vital now that governments, international agencies, NGOs and communities on the ground work together to tackle this immense problem. The ejiao trade is one of cultural, social and economic complexities, but urgent action is needed to ensure there is a future for Africa’s donkeys, and the people who depend on them.
By Geoffrey Dennis, SPANA’s CEO