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How China's demand for donkey skins risks 'devastating impact' on poor East African communities

Jevans Nyabiage

Kenyan slaughterhouses for donkeys have turned the country into a hotspot for the global trade in their skins, which are a highly valued product in Chinese medicine.

But campaigners have warned that the decision could have a "devastating impact" on the lives of poor communities by creating a black market for the skins of stolen animals.

Others are smuggled from neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan to supply the factories in Kenya, which is the only country in East Africa with licensed donkey abattoirs.

According to the activists, more than 1,000 donkeys are being slaughtered to supply China with donkey hide, which is made into gelatin called ejiao, a traditional remedy believed to improve blood circulation and treat conditions such as anaemia.

Donkey-hide gelatin is used to make ejiao, a traditional medicinal product. Photo: Wikipedia alt=Donkey-hide gelatin is used to make ejiao, a traditional medicinal product. Photo: Wikipedia

But many families that live in arid and semi-arid areas of East Africa depend on donkeys, which play a vital role as beasts of burden.

"I believe if the Chinese consumers understood that families, women's and children's lives are being devastated in Africa because of the loss of their donkey they would view this product in a very different way," Petra Ingram, chief executive of Brooke, an international animal welfare charity, told the Donkey Skin Trade Conference 2019 in Nairobi this week.

"In some families, the donkey is the only source of income. We want a ban on the export of donkey skins and associated products."

Ingram argued: "We have a crisis in Kenya because 1,000 donkeys are slaughtered each day. Over the last three years, they have slaughtered more than 300,000 donkeys

"We have seen demand for ejiao increase significantly in the past few years. This product is having a devastating impact on the lives of people in Africa and around the world."

Brooke works in East Africa with Donkey Sanctuary and The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad " both UK charities " and local organisations to campaign for a ban on the trade in donkey hides and meat.

The decline in the number of domestically bred donkeys has forced ejiao producers in China to source for the skins from abroad " a move that a recent study warned could almost wipe out the animals in markets like Kenya in three years.

As a result of urbanisation and many Chinese abandoning farming, the number of donkeys in China has dropped from about 11 million in the 1990s to about 3 million today, according to government data.

Deng Gai, a South Sudanese representative at the East African Legislative Assembly, said Tanzania had banned the export of donkey products only to relax the rules after Kenya licensed slaughterhouses.

"They are seeing all their donkeys coming into Kenya, so they are wondering: what's the point of banning the trade?" said Deng, who chairs the committee on communication, trade and investment at the six-nation assembly.

"That is why we need a regional approach. We are working with the likes of Brooke to find what's going on to put in motions or requests for regional action," Deng told the conference.

She asked: "Why do we need to slaughter so many donkeys simply because a section of society believes that a specific product from skins is going to change their lives?"

A worker collect dried donkey hides at a site in Kenya. Photo: Handout alt=A worker collect dried donkey hides at a site in Kenya. Photo: Handout

A recent study by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and Kenya's Directorate of Veterinary Services revealed that in the country's four licensed donkey slaughterhouses, a total of 301,977 donkeys had been butchered between 2016 and 2018.

"If the trend continues, there is a likelihood of the depleting donkey population by 2022 if appropriate interventions are not considered and implemented," concluded the study.

Kenya's 2009 census shows that donkey population was recorded at 1.8 million, but according to Brooke East Africa, that number may have dropped significantly since then.

The growing international demand for donkey skins has prompted a number of other African countries " including Botswana, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and Senegal " to ban exports of donkey products.

Burkina Faso stopped donkey exports after 45,000 of the animals " from a total population of 1.4 million " were killed in the space of six months.

Nigeria is also debating a bill to ban the export of live donkeys or their carcasses, according to Brooke.

A recent study by Donkey Sanctuary warned that the rising demand for donkey hide gelatin risked halving the number of the animals in Asia, Africa and South America in as little as five years unless governments step in to regulate the trade.

China currently uses about 4.8 million hides per year to make ejiao but the country cannot meet this demand from domestic supplies and has to import more from Africa, Asia and South America, according to the charity.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.