Animal rights and donkey activists are calling on governments worldwide to ban the export of donkey skins. This is part of a global effort to fight the mass slaughter of donkeys for traditional Chinese medicine. Gelatine extracted from donkey hides is used to produce ‘ejaio’ – traditional Chinese tablets, tonics and a sweet syrup. The skins are soaked and stewed to produce or release this substance.
In the first comprehensive study of the trade, the charity The Donkey Sanctuary, based in the United Kingdom, has discovered that as many as 10 million donkeys are at risk. This trade has led to an explosion in the number of donkeys in Africa, Asia and South America being sourced, stolen and slaughtered for their skins.
The trade, in both its legal and illegal forms, is resulting in a chain of welfare issues for the donkeys at every step, from sourcing to transport and finally slaughter.
Alex Mayers, International Programme Manager at The Donkey Sanctuary said: “We’ve seen reports of donkeys being skinned alive, being bludgeoned to death, being transported for long distances with no opportunity to rest, feed or drink. Donkeys are a very intelligent species and particularly sensitive to the effects of stress.
“The welfare of any donkey both during and at the end of its life is paramount and should be the primary concern, as for any food-producing animal. Sadly the welfare of donkeys used to produce skins and meat is frequently reported to be ‘severely compromised’ during sourcing, transport and slaughter.”
Don’t let it happen in South Africa
Virtually all countries with significant donkey populations are reporting an increase in donkey slaughter for this market.
Tribal authorities in the Northern Cape and Limpopo reportedly sell donkeys for between R200 and R600 each, according to the NSPCA, but a donkey hide can sell for up to R7 000. “By the time a 20-foot [6m] container filled to the brim with donkey hides reaches China and is sold on their markets, it is worth approximately R8-million”.
South Africa’s department of forestry and fisheries, which is assisting a national police unit to track and apprehend donkey syndicates, said it is gravely concerned about the recent hike in the illegal slaughter and trade of donkeys.
“A task team has been established, working with the South African police at national level, to curb these illegal activities,” said its spokesperson, Bomikazi Malopo.
Arrests for the illegal transportation, theft, slaughter and hide sale have also increased in South Africa since 2015. Last year, four people were sentenced to eight months in prison for animal cruelty after being caught with a truck carrying 41 donkeys from Limpopo to Randfontein.
Already donkey numbers have declined significantly in the Karoo. Donkey sanctuaries here have reported being approached by ‘suspicious characters’ wanting to buy the donkeys they are sheltering.
Burkina Faso and Niger are the only two countries on the African continent to have banned the export of donkey hides.
Donkeys caught up in the skin trade have little hope – the skin of an expensive healthy animal generates the same profit as that of a diseased, poorly kept or weak animal, which means that traders often see no value in maintaining good welfare conditions.