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 1992 to less than three million in 2019 [1]. On a global perspective the numbers are also worrying: the demand for up to 5 million donkeys per year is facing a worldwide donkey population of 41 million [2], according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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.



Obtaining donkeys in East Africa

To meet the demand for Ejiao, the trade has expanded to some of the poorest regions in the world – places with a large donkey population. According to the FAO, 27 percent of the world-wide donkey population can be found in Africa. However, these animals are used as pack animals and are thus essential for the general public.

As a response, some African countries tried to put a stop to this.

Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana banned the construction and running of slaughterhouses. South Sudan, Uganda, Senegal, Botswana, Sudan and Nigeria banned the export and trade with China or banned the killing of donkeys for the export of donkey skin to China.

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 slaughterhouses 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 kilometres away, but also carry kids to school, the sick to hospitals and the harvest from the fields to local markets.

In Tanzania...

… two slaughterhouses for donkeys were established in 2014, 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 slaughterhouses. Read more about the situation here:

Since 2017 we’ve been active in Tanzania to protect the donkeys. We have regularly administered emergency aid and built 160 enclosures in the affected villages, resulting in more than 4000 donkeys now being protected from theft. So far, none of the villages we’ve built an enclosure in has had a donkey stolen since! Ream more about this here

Furthermore, in cooperation with another partner, we work at animal markets and in the slaughterhouses themselves. By doing regular controls and providing informational materials, we ensure that animal welfare standards are known and workers improve their animal handling. Our partner often has to step in to stop acute animal abuse: This already starts on the way to the market when being transported, as way too many animals are stuffed into the small truck. The animals do not receive any care during transport and often die. When at the slaughterhouse, they again do not get any food or water and are left outside in the boiling sun. This is where we step in, take care of the donkeys and update the workers in regard to the current animal welfare laws.

The officially allowed slaughter number of 40 donkeys per day is being exceeded every day in Shinyanga. This is not only due to the still increasing demand for donkey products but, according to our partner, also because most animals seem to be illegally held. And exactly these animals are missed terribly in villages.

2020 we are extending our work through a large-scaled project in the north-western part of the country, including the surrounding villages of the slaughterhouses. Apart from building more enclosures to protect the donkeys, we also do informational public outreach campaigns, for example by using radio spots and attending local community meetings, to inform the people about what is happening and ensure that everyone is prepared. The people are encouraged to improve protective measures for their animals and also clearly position themselves when it comes to donkey trade.

In Kenya…

… the situation is even worse. The country is said to be the center of exports of donkeys from East Africa to China. Over the last few years, Tanzania’s neighbouring country invested millions in the construction of four donkey slaughterhouses, which altogether were able to 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, in 2019 we were able to record the situation in the donkey slaughterhouses – and were presented with unbearable results. In all four slaughterhouses 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 slaughterhouse through forceful violence and beatings. The actual killing of the animals is especially shocking: none of the slaughterhouses 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 electric Tasers 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!

You can find the full detailed report on the four donkey slaughterhouses here: (in German)

We were told by the director of veterinary services in Kenya, that there was not enough data to answer the question of why the government does not intervene to stop the current situation. A line of arguments often used to justify maintaining the donkey slaughterhouses were claims such as that they create jobs and enable locals to sell their old and sick animals at a profit. These arguments seemed to outweigh the discussion on animal welfare and the severe consequences the trade has on peoples’ lives.

This is what we wanted 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.

Our inquiries showed in detail that the four slaughterhouses 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. 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 increased as well. Since the slaughterhouses were established, the price per donkey has risen around 300 percent from 4.000 Kenya shilling to 12.000 Kenya shilling.

The extensive data - collected from hundreds of donkey keepers and their nearly 2000 animals - as well as the findings of the slaughterhouse visits revealed the overall situation of the donkeys in Kenya.  They help to increase the pressure on the Kenyan Government to find a solution to this issue.

Our work continues

Our work goes on. We need to continue to monitor the developments in Kenya and ensure that the donkey slaughter for export will end. Additionally, our work in the neighbouring country of Tanzania, where both animal and human lives are being threatened, is becoming more and more relevant. Here, we are supporting the local communities living around the slaughterhouse in Shinyanga.

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