Across Africa, millions of donkeys are being stolen and brutally slaughtered to meet China’s insatiable demand for their skins. And, as Jill Starley-Grainger reports, it’s having a devasting effect on the people who rely on them to survive.
When people talk about animal crime in Africa, most think of wildlife poachers. But in recent years, one of the most stolen, tortured and butchered animals has been the humble donkey.
It is being targeted for use in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’, and not only are the animals suffering horrific deaths, but their owners are often left destitute and hungry.
‘I am a widow, and my only means of sustenance for me and my children is linked to our donkey,’ said Sitan Traoré, from Diakobougou in Mali.
‘They have stolen my donkeys seven times. They cost up to $105 to replace. When it was hot, I used my donkey to sell ice, but now I have nothing.’
Like many people in Mali, Sitan lives on less than $3.50 a day.
The Donkey Sanctuary, a UK charity, estimates that at least 60,000 donkeys were killed in West Africa in just three months in 2019.
The donkeys are stolen, then transported in brutal conditions, suffering pain, injuries, starvation and thirst along the way.
Because only the skin is used for Chinese ‘medicine’, it makes little difference to the criminals if the donkeys are healthy or even alive on arrival, with an estimated 20 per cent dying en route.
A dozen African countries have already made the trade illegal, but this doesn’t stop the traffickers, who will steal them from people’s homes and fields, or coerce owners into accepting paltry sums of money for them.
The reason for the decimation of the donkey population is the same as for the poaching of rhinos, pangolins and other African wildlife – traditional Chinese ‘medicine’.
Donkey skins contain a unique type of gelatine called ejiao, which is claimed to treat all sorts of ailments, from blood and fertility problems to wrinkles - none of which have been proven in any quality peer-reviewed medical trials.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the claims, demand for donkey skins in China to make ejiao has risen in recent years.
It’s largely been caused by a surge in the popularity of the ingredient among the Chinese middle classes, and is only expected to get worse, with China’s traditional ‘medicine’ industry expected to be worth over $115 billion by 2025 - nearly triple its value in 2010.
Because of this explosion in the popularity of eijao – sometimes called DHG (donkey-hide glue) or donkey oil when used in products outside of China – producers must kill an estimated five million donkeys every year for their skins.
But at the same time, China’s own donkey numbers have dwindled. The last reliable estimate by The Donkey Sanctuary found that China had only 2.7 million donkeys in 2017, down 76 per cent since 1992.
Some ejiao producers have therefore turned to criminal networks across the world to get the donkey skins they need, leading to thefts from many of the poorest people in society – the ones who rely on donkeys for their own survival.
The trafficking of donkeys and their skins is happening across the developing world, but Africa is believed to be one of the largest sources for illegal skins.
‘This slaughter, often in the most horrific circumstances, occurs at an alarming scale. In Nigeria, between 2,500 and 4,000 donkeys were reportedly being killed every weekday at the Nkwo Jakki market, equating to between 650,000 and over one million donkeys every year,’ according to research by The Donkey Sanctuary.
Some politicians are listening, including Alhaji Mohammed Nanono, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who worked on a bill to prohibit the killing and exportation of donkeys and its derivatives.
He explained: ‘The indiscriminate slaughtering of this species of animal, if not controlled, will lead to extinction of donkey population in Nigeria.’
It might sound extreme to think of donkeys as a potentially endangered species, but many NGOs, charities and governments believe this could well be the case.
Even some working within the ejiao industry admit the loss of the entire donkey species could happen in the near future.
Lu Donglin, managing director of Goldox Kenya, a now-closed slaughterhouse, said in 2017: ‘A worldwide donkey shortage is looming and it could only take three years for the species to become extinct.’
Extinction may not have happened yet numbers continue to dwindle rapidly.
While all animals killed for human consumption endure a level of cruelty and fear, donkeys are treated exceptionally badly by traffickers.
Investigations by The Donkey Sanctuary into equine slaughterhouses and farms have shown feeble donkeys in Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and West Africa being repeatedly hit and yanked by chains, starving and dying of thirst, and left to suffer with maggot-infested open wounds.
Meanwhile, untended broken legs are commonplace, meaning the donkeys can’t stand or move, and are left to wallow in filth.
Those deemed ready for the slaughterhouse are then forced to watch other donkeys slowly and painfully killed by unskilled workers in front of them.
Many of these instances of cruelty have been videotaped by undercover investigators in authorised abattoirs and donkey farms - yet perpetrators typically get off with only the lightest of fines.
In Botswana, for example, a man was fined just $5.50 for animal cruelty after a video exposed the beatings and abuse he inflicted on donkeys at an official slaughterhouse.
Beyond the appalling treatment of the donkeys, the human impact can be measured in the diseases and environmental damage suffered by those who live near the slaughterhouses and along the roads used by the traffickers.
Waste run-off from abattoirs is a major problem, with farmers living nearby finding their own livestock and crops are affected.
One farmer who lived near a slaughterhouse in Kenya said his cows became sick from the pollution and that their milk production fell to a quarter of their normal output.
In Tanzania, a donkey slaughterhouse caused blocked drains and other environmental problems, including serious health risks for neighbours.
While this led to fines totalling of $141,000 by the National Environment Management Council, it took two years before the facility was finally closed.
When donkeys are not transported in a safe and healthy manner, and the blood and other fluids from their bodies are not disposed of correctly, they can spread diseases to humans, including life-threatening anthrax and tetanus.
As mistreated donkeys are transported in improper vehicles, not only do the animals get thrown around and crushed, sometimes slowly suffocating to death, but their waste and fluids run off the trucks and into the ground along the way.
Flies and mosquitoes can easily get inside these vehicles, too, picking up diseases and spreading them to humans or livestock in the local area, which can lead to devasting consequences for people and their livelihoods.
If just one cow gets tetanus it can quickly spread the disease to other cattle.
But the rush to kill ever more donkeys to supply the demand in China means these are risks the traffickers, ejiao producers and some unscrupulous abattoir owners are prepared to take.
In Nairobi, the Kenya Anti-Rustling Programme, an NGO that’s part of Borders Community Peacenet Africa (BCPA), has been shocked at the levels of donkey thefts, and has seen first-hand how it destroys communities.
Many African countries have now banned donkey slaughter and/or the export of donkey skins, including Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali and Senegal, but lack of enforcement means the illegal trade continues unabated. In Nigeria, the bill started by Nanono finally passed in 2020, with the Nigerian government banning the killing of donkeys and the trade of donkey skins.
But in most cases, even when the law forbids it, governments do little to stop the trafficking.
‘Donkeys are stolen, traded and slaughtered in open defiance of national bans on the trade,’ said Simon Pope of The Donkey Sanctuary.
‘There is also evidence of the link to the trafficking of wildlife products, including ivory, pangolin scales, rhino horn and tiger skins.’
The reduction in donkey numbers is leading to increased poverty in many rural communities, where donkeys are a valuable means of transport.
The Donkey Sanctuary found that the donkeys now cost $230 in Egypt, compared to $23 just a few years ago, while the cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from $100 to over $200 in the past four years.
The rocketing prices have seen some Kenyans, like Richard Otieno, who uses donkeys to transport cement, lose four animals in just two years.
For others like Lilian Njoroge, who relies on donkeys to transport vegetables to market in Nairobi, replacing stolen donkeys has led to her having to take out a crippling bank loan.
In rural areas of the country, the situation is even more precarious. Donkey owners like Jefferson Muhiu, who lost four animals to poaching, have had to form anti-poaching patrols to guard their animals around the clock.
Kenya officially outlawed the donkey trade 12 months ago, but sadly for donkeys and locals alike poaching is still very much alive and kicking.