Protecting donkeys in East Africa

The interest in traditional Chinese medicine, and in turn also in its animal-based products, is rapidly increasing all over the world. Especially the trade of donkey skin is thriving. The donkey population is declining worldwide though due to the breeding of these animals not being able to match the rate of demand. This has resulted in donkeys becoming a rare good – with worrying consequences especially in East Africa.

The impact of Ejiao on the worlds’ donkey population

Ejiao is the name of a product that has been known for centuries in Asia and traditional medicine. It is made by boiling donkey skin and used as a gel or powder in food and drinks as well as skin care products such as night creams. Back in the day, this “miracle cure” was a prestigious product only available to the very few top-tier Chinese. However, due to the growing wealth of the population and the overall expansion of traditional medicine also to Europe, the interest in this product can now be found in all social classes: already you can buy products containing Ejiao online in Germany. The donkey population in China has now halved from around 11 million animals in 19901 to less than six million in 20152. On a global perspective these numbers are worrying: the demand for four to 10 million donkeys per year is facing a worldwide donkey population of 44 million3.

There is no point in trying to breed enough animals to cover the demand: donkeys carry their offspring for 12 to 13 months on average to then give birth to only one single foal. In this context, to meet the demand, you would have to keep massive herds of animals that require tremendous amounts of resources like water and food.

1 Starkey P, Starkey M. Regional and world trends in donkey populations. Starkey P, Fielding D, editors. Donkeys, People and Development. ATNESA; 2000. 10 – 21 p.

Obtaining donkeys in East Africa

To meet the demand for donkey skin for Ejiao, the trade has expanded to some of the poorest regions in the world – places where donkeys are used as pack animals and are thus essential for the general public. 13 African countries have since tried to put a stop to this, often illegal, trade by banning the export of donkey products and the construction of donkey-focused slaughter houses: Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal in 2016 as well as Botswana, Uganda, Ethiopia und Ghana in 2017. Ivory Coast and South Africa have banned the export as well.

In Tanzania...

… two slaughter houses for donkeys were established that both operate until today. Tanzania banned the export of donkey products for a short-time period in June 2017, but January 2018 that ban was again lifted. 

Since the beginning of 2017, our team has been observing the increasing number of donkey thefts, especially in remote villages where people depend on the donkeys to survive and thus own around three to four animals per family. Thieves invade the villages during the night and the donkeys, often being kept unprotected on local pastures, are either skinned right there and then or are stolen and transported to slaughter houses. We have gotten involved in Tanzania to protect the donkeys and since 2017, have built 160 enclosures in the affected villages, resulting in more than 4000 donkeys now being protected from theft. By using public outreach and informational resources, such radio spots and meetings with local authorities, we run important preventative measures to ensure that families are informed about the current situation and the dangers. So far, none of the villages we’ve built an enclosure in has had a donkey stolen since!

Furthermore, in cooperation with another partner, we work at animal markets and in the slaughter houses themselves. In discussions with the people responsible, our partner is working on implementing the mandatory use of anesthesia prior to the slaughter. Additionally, in the slaughter houses, information material is displayed for the employees handling the donkeys to hopefully impact the conditions the animals are being held in and thus improve their welfare. The animal markets and slaughter houses are also being monitored regularly to ensure animal-appropriate handling of the animals.

In Kenya…

… the situation is even worse. The country is said to be the center of exports of donkeys from East Africa to China. But animal welfare does not seem to matter here.

Tanzania’s neighbouring country has invested millions in the construction of four donkey slaughter houses, which altogether can slaughter 800 donkeys a day – 300.000 animals a year – without any consideration of the existing animal welfare laws.

Thanks to the help of our local partner Dr. Solomon Onyango, we were able to record the current situation in the donkey slaughter houses – and have seen the unbearable results. In all four slaughter houses the up to 500 animals were in terrible condition. They have to stand in an outdoor area in the boiling heat for days at a time, without access to food or water. The animals are malnourished and in some instances badly hurt with broken bones. They are then forced to the inside of the slaughter house through forceful violence and beatings. The actual killing of the animals is especially shocking: none of the slaughter houses are using an adequate method to stun the animals. They are either repeatedly hit on the head with a metal bar until they lose consciousness or electro shockers or probes are being used. None of these methods is acceptable from an animal welfare point of view. They all result in the cruel death of the animal. This situation is absolutely unacceptable!

After reporting about the gruesome situation in the slaughter houses, we will request that the operators follow the animal welfare laws. To do this, we ask you to have a look at our petition: Please sign!

The local peoples’ existence is being threatened

These developments also have dramatic consequences for the local people, as talks with community representatives of the villages in Tanzania based near the slaughter houses have revealed. Donkey owners are often the poorest people in the area and rely on the donkey to survive. To those people, these animals are loyal companions that not only carry the water from the wells kilometers away, but also carry kids to school, the sick to hospitals and the harvest from the fields to local markets.

In Kenya, our inquiries have shown in detail that the four slaughter houses have impacted the local ambiance negatively and have resulted in disadvantages for the people living in the area: Especially as the number of thefts is increasing, people have to fear for their own existence. When you lose the essential support your packing animal provides overnight, the people are suddenly left with nothing as they also can’t afford to buy a new donkey since, as another result of the demand for donkeys, the overall worth of these animals has increased as well. The price per donkey has risen around 300 percent since the slaughter houses were established from 4.000 Kenya shilling to 12.000 Kenya shilling.

Due to Kenya being the focal point of donkey exports from East Africa to China, it has become an essential country of operation for the team of the Welttierschutzgesellschaft e.V.

As we know from the director of veterinary services in Kenya, there is not enough data to answer the question of why the government does not intervene to stop the current situation. A line of argument that is often used to justify maintaining the donkey slaughter houses claims that they create jobs and enable locals to sell their old and sick animals at a profit. These arguments seem to outweigh the discussion on animal welfare and the severe consequences the trade has on peoples’ lives.

This is what we want to change, which is why we have gained an overview in Kenya on a large scale – in 32 out of 47 districts nationwide. Our local partner, Dr. Solomon Onyango, was on duty with the support of local colleagues, to have conversations with donkey owners and ask questions such as: How are their donkeys doing? What role do the animals play in everyday life? In addition, another team examined the legal situation on which the operations of slaughterhouses and the rapidly growing trade in donkey skins are being based. The team determined the existing laws for donkey protection and the gaps that need to be filled.

The extensive data that has been collected from hundreds of donkey keepers and their nearly 2000 animals is currently being evaluated. Together with the findings of the slaughterhouse visits, we can use the reviewed information to map out the overall donkey situation in Kenya. The results will provide us with a starting point to increase the pressure on the Kenyan Government to find a solution that ensures the welfare of both animals and human beings.

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