Donkey skin trade in East Africa
Globally, the importance of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the associated demand for products of animal origin is growing at a rapid pace. In particular, the trade in processed donkey skin, which is considered a supposed "miracle cure", is flourishing. But the breeding of the animals can not cover the enormous demand by far and so the animals have become a sought-after commodity. This also has fatal consequences in East Africa, where the donkeys are considered loyal companions and are often the only livelihood of the people.
Ejiao is the name of a product that has been extracted from donkey skin for centuries in Asia for Traditional Chinese Medicine and processed as jelly or powder in dishes and beverages as well as in cosmetics such as creams. Once upon a time, the supposed remedy being a prestige product was reserved for only a few high-ranking Chinese. With the growing prosperity of the population and the global expansion of TCM, interest grew across all walks of life: Products with Ejiao can already be purchased in Germany via online mail order.
Donkey population in danger
a donkey population of about 50.45 million, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2021, is offset by a demand of up to five million donkey skins for Ejiao production. The demand for donkeys within a year can therefore not be sustainably covered by the natural population size – albeit it is growing.
The breeding of donkeys offers no chance to meet the high demand: donkeys have an average gestation period of 12 to 13 months and usually only give birth to a foal every 3 to 4 years. In order to meet the high demand, huge herds would have to be kept, which would require an immense use of valuable resources such as water and feed as well as generous space for movement, which is not an option, especially in the countries in the global South that are severely affected by the consequences of the climate crisis. In addition, the factory farming of donkeys for reproductive purposes is only possible to a limited extent: mares can live well in groups of up to 10 animals and a stallion if there is sufficient space available. However, stallions cannot be kept together in a group, because they would injure each other because of their sexual behavior.
the number of donkeys fell from an estimated eleven million in 1992 to about 2.3 million in 2020.
On the African continent...
lives a large part of the donkeys worldwide, especially in the poorer countries and regions the donkeys are considered beasts of burden. Donkey farmers are often the poorest of the poor and need their animals to survive, because they help to transport water from water points miles away to the villages, children to schools, the sick to hospitals or the harvest from the field to the markets.
However, in order to meet the global demand for donkey skin, those African countries that have particularly high donkey populations have been developed as new trading partners.
Some of them directly opposed the donkey skin trade in view of the immense importance of the animals for the population: Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana imposed license freezes for the construction or operation of donkey slaughterhouses. South Sudan, Uganda, Senegal, Botswana, Sudan and Niger banned the export or trade to China or prevented the slaughter of donkeys for the export of donkey skins to China.
Ethiopia, as the country with the largest donkey population in Africa, also banned the trade in donkey skins and the slaughter of donkeys. Others saw an economic opportunity in overseas trading partners – and approved the construction of donkey slaughterhouses through Chinese investment.
The result is images like this: countless donkey skins are dried in the sun before they are boiled down and exported in the form of gelatin blocks or as powder.
The focus of our efforts to protect donkeys: Tanzania and Kenya as centres of the donkey skin trade in East Africa
East Africa in particular had developed into a centre of the donkey skin trade within a few years. In 2014, for example, two donkey slaughterhouses opened in Tanzania in the Dodoma and Shinyanga regions, the latter of which operated until 2021. The slaughterhouse in Dodoma was closed in 2017.
At the same time, four donkey slaughterhouses were created in Kenya, in which up to 400 donkeys a day were slaughtered and processed until the closure in the summer of 2020 – always far more than actually allowed by license. This is how the illegal trade was initiated: Since 2016, we at WTG have observed an increasing number of donkey thefts, first in Tanzania and later also in Kenya, especially in the remote villages where people live with three to four donkeys for self-sufficiency. The thieves steal the animals, which usually roam freely at night, and either procure the valuable goods – the skin of the animals – on site or bring the live animals for sale to the slaughterhouses. Within a short time, the farms had developed into an existential threat to the animals – and their families.
Restless help for the protection of donkeys
Since 2017, we have been providing several emergency aids and strengthening the protection of donkeys in the villages acutely affected by thefts. For this purpose, enclosures were built, which protected several thousand donkeys from theft. Together with our partners at Tanzania Animal Protection Organization (TAPO), we set up a large-scale project in the Shinyanga region in 2019 on this basis – in the immediate vicinity of the slaughterhouse.
In addition to raising awareness of the issue of thefts and the construction of protective donkey enclosures, the most important activity in the project is to raise awareness among donkey owners of the value of their animals. As indispensable helpers in everyday life, it is essential that the well-being of the donkeys is given a high priority and that care and protection are ensured. With this understanding, people are also empowered e to position themselves clearly against the donkey trade. In addition, we carry out important public relations and information work, for example through radio spots and meetings with local authorities.
In addition, since 2016, together with our partner Tanzania Animal Welfare Society (TAWESO), we have been ensuring through controls and information work at animal markets, traffic control points and slaughterhouses that animal welfare standards are made known and that employees improve their handling of the animals. Preventing acute animal cruelty has top priority here. This often begins when the animals are crammed into the vans on the way to the markets or from there to the slaughterhouses. Arriving at markets as well as slaughterhouses, the animals often have to suffer unnecessarily without water and food in the scorching heat. In the case of donkeys, the situation is particularly bad: Unlike other animals, their "purpose" is reduced to the skin – whether the animals are well-fed and sufficiently hydrated does not matter to many traders. Massive animal suffering is the sad consequence. Here we intervene, care for the animals and instruct the employees to comply with the applicable animal welfare laws.
... and in Kenya
Our commitment to the donkeys started in 2019 with documenting the situation in all four donkey slaughterhouses in order to collect arguments that could prevent them from continuing to operate. Our partner Dr. Solomon Onyango found that the up to 400 animals per slaughterhouse were all in very poor condition. They often had to endure unprotected from the scorching heat for days, and were not supplied with water or food. The animals were severely malnourished while many were also injured by wounds and bone fractures.
However, as we learned from the Director of Veterinary Services in Kenya, there was still a lack of thorough data in the country, which also justified the government's lack of response to these conditions.
As arguments for the continued operation of the donkey slaughterhouses, on the other hand, it was often cited that they would create jobs and give people the opportunity to sell their old or sick animals profitably. In the discussion, these points outweighed animal welfare – and the serious impact on people's lives. In 2019, we therefore conducted a large-scale socio-economic study to examine this reasoning. Through the collected findings, which proved the negative impact on the local population, we had created a starting point to increase the pressure on the Kenyan government.
To the details of the study: Dr. Solomon Onyango, with the support of local colleagues, was deployed in 32 of the country's 47 districts and sought to talk to donkey owners to find out what role animals play for people in everyday life. In the course of the surveys, it quickly became apparent that the four companies had negatively changed the atmosphere on site and, above all, had brought disadvantages for the people living there. In particular, the number of thefts had increased, which gave rise to existential fears: If the help from the animal suddenly stopped, people were faced with nothing and could no longer afford a new animal due to the increased price associated with the growing demand. The price of a donkey in Kenya had risen by over 300 percent (from 4,000 to 12,000 Kenyan shillings – about 95 euros) since the slaughterhouses were put into operation. The extensive data – of hundreds of donkey owners and their almost 2,000 animals – and the available findings from the slaughterhouse visits were completed by the analyses of another team: This examined the legal situation on which the operation of the slaughterhouses and the strongly grown trade in donkey skins are based. They identified what laws exist to protect donkeys and what gaps need to be filled so that we could develop a basis for future demands. This showed that a final success in the operation against the donkey slaughterhouses would be achieved if the donkeys were removed from the country’s "Meat Control Act" and thus in principle could no longer be slaughtered.
Is there hope for the donkeys?
- In Kenya, the long-awaited reaction to the increasing protest took place in February 2020:
Peter Munya of the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the slaughter of donkeys and the trade in donkey products would be stopped by the withdrawal of the operating licenses of all four slaughterhouses. In his statement, the State Secretary cited the declining donkey population and the associated burden on the local population as reasons. The publication in Kenya's legal Gazette consequently revised the permission to slaughter donkeys for export – with immediate effect, the legal framework for a ban on the slaughter of donkeys for export to China was created!
Our work – the documentation, the socio-economic study and the accompanying petition in which we urged the operators of the donkey slaughterhouses to comply with the applicable animal welfare conditions – had a significant influence on this decision, according to our local partner Dr. Solomon Onyango.
Unfortunately, what has been happening in Kenya since then can be compared to a cat-and-mouse game:
- In May 2021, Kenya's High Court revoked the ban on the slaughter of donkeys and the export of the skins with immediate effect. The Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, however, was taking action against this by withholding inspectors through the veterinary authority and thus trying to prevent the slaughtering of donkeys. Because without state supervision, no slaughterhouse is allowed to operate in Kenya.
- In order to obtain reliable information about the developments in the country and to be able to act if necessary, we made possible an extensive on-site research at the end of 2021 around the four currently closed slaughterhouses – and thus received a very worrying insight: Three of the four donkey slaughterhouses are ready to resume their operations at any time. Hundreds of donkeys are already on the grounds of the slaughterhouses and could be slaughtered immediately. In addition, cooperating donkey keepers are prepared to be able to deliver their animals to the slaughterhouses within a very short time. The operators of the donkey slaughterhouses were extremely confident that a reopening would happen as soon as possible – and that slaughter could be resumed quickly. In order to achieve the goal, the operators vigorously rely on lobbying and seek contact and support from the local population and local government officials. For example, they collect signatures for their request in the municipalities and transmit them to the authority responsible for animal health. As a result, some local politicians now see the reopening of slaughterhouses as less problematic, as long as the donkey owners are not harmed by thefts of their animals.
We resolutely oppose this and try to vehemently prevent the reopening of the slaughterhouses:
- Together with our local partner, the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), we already went into action in 27 districts of the country in the summer of 2021 in alliance with other organizations and organized high-profile events to win over the public and to send a clear message to the government against the donkey slaughterhouses. In our area of operation, the northern district of Marsabit, we collected signatures for a petition to increase the pressure on the government. On the one hand, the government should be persuaded to restart the final closure of the slaughterhouses. On the other hand, we called for the removal of donkeys from the Meat Control Act (German in order to define them as food-producing animals. Because then the slaughter of donkeys would be completely prohibited.
In response to this commitment, political voices reaffirmed that they will continue to prevent the issuance of new licenses for the operation of the donkey slaughterhouses. Because they also support our thesis that if the slaughterhouses reopen, it is to be feared that thousands of donkeys would be slaughtered again without delay for the extraction of donkey skins – legally and illegally.
An overview of the events so far and the current situation around the donkey skin trade in Kenya can be found in the video of NTV, one of the largest TV stations in the country. As part of our mission, we have made the documentation available for you here:
- In Tanzania, the increasing protest is already leading to great successes for the donkeys:
In October 2020, the slaughterhouse in Shinyanga was closed for the first time by state order, then reopened in May to be closed again in October 2021 – and this time apparently longer-term. This was caused by unsustainable violations regarding animal welfare and hygiene in the slaughterhouse, which we also pointed out as part of the project work. This is an important stage victory in the fight against the donkey skin trade, because the renewal of the operating license is subject to strict conditions that build on our argumentation and focus on animal welfare:
In this way, compliance with animal welfare standards must be ensured and the population of donkeys in Tanzania must have grown again. The Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries pointed out in a letter in mid-January that the number of donkeys in the country must have risen to at least 10 million before slaughter at the Shinyanga farm could resume.
According to the ministry, Tanzania currently has 600,000 donkeys. With the animals' low reproductive rate and additional challenges such as recurrent drought, many years would pass before this point would be reached.
However, since this guideline can also change again depending on political developments, we are constantly in contact with our partners on the ground in order to make urgently needed emergency aid for the protection of donkeys possible – as was the case recently. In addition, we are constantly doing valuable animal welfare work for donkeys as part of the two ongoing projects in the country.
In the case of the short-term closures of the donkey slaughterhouse in Tanzania, the traders still continued to deliver donkeys for which there was neither protection from the scorching heat nor supply of food and fresh water.
Together with our local partners from TAWESO, we went into action both times directly with emergency aid to ensure the survival of the stranded donkeys in the region around the slaughterhouse. Several hundred animals could be placed with new, responsible owners, as you can read in detail here: https://welttierschutz.org/soforthilfe-esel-tansania/ (german)
However, the current closure of the Shinyanga slaughterhouse is only a stage victory, as long as the corresponding long-term bans are not pronounced. A reopening could mean the end of countless donkey lives at any time. We will do everything in our power to achieve our goal of the final closure of the slaughterhouse and a fundamental ban on donkey slaughter.
Improve the lives of countless donkeys in East Africa in the long term – with your help
Dear animal lovers, we want to improve the situation for the donkeys in the long term, strengthen their well-being and stop the donkey slaughter! We are therefore constantly working in Tanzania and Kenya and, through constant exchange with our partners, are able to influence the developments in the donkey skin trade – and to react whenever the situation requires it.
In this way, we can do everything in our power to achieve our long-term goals of closing donkey slaughterhouses and banning trade in principle.
We want to make sure that ...
- the donkey owners are informed about the dangers and sensitized to the value of their animals and their needs. They need support to be able to care for and protect their animals in the best possible way.
- through our documentation and research work, insights into trade – both legal and illegal – are gained, which serve as a basis for further measures (regulations, restriction of trade, review of laws) and ultimately realize our long-term goal: the permanent closure of donkey slaughterhouses in East Africa.
- At the same time, the animal welfare standards must be made known to the employees at the markets and in the slaughterhouses and implemented in the handling of the animals and
- in addition, it is important to be ready for emergency operations at all times.
As the past few months have already shown, there are often only weeks between the closure and reopening of the slaughterhouses – and countless donkey lives are suddenly at stake!
Please support our comprehensive commitment to the protection of donkeys in East Africa – your donation saves donkey lives!