China's demand for African donkeys prompts export bans
Humans owe a lot to the humble donkey. Domesticated for more than five millennia, they have been used for everything from farming to warfare.
But as the world has industrialised, only the very poorest communities still rely on donkeys for their day-to-day needs and nowhere is this more apparent than in China: after two decades of economic growth, the country’s donkey population has dropped by almost half.
This decline has had an unintended consequence for traditional medicine. When boiled, donkey skin produces a rubbery, gelatine-like substance, known as ejiao, which is included in many popular Chinese tonics and medicines for its perceived ability to cure coughs, relieve insomnia and revitalise the blood.
But these days, there simply aren’t enough Chinese donkeys to make enough ejiao, so manufacturers are turning to Africa, where donkey populations remain in rude health.
In Niger, some 80,000 donkeys have been exported to China this year, compared with 27,000 in 2015. In Burkina Faso, donkey traders sold 18,000 animals to international buyers in the first quarter of 2016, up from just 1,000 for the same period last year.
In Kenya, a donkey abattoir opened in April in Naivasha to cater for the burgeoning Chinese market.
But this thriving export market is not without considerable drawbacks for local people. In Niger, the price of donkeys has risen from $34 to $147, a huge rise for farmers and merchants who need to buy donkeys to maintain their livelihoods. Officials are also worried that the demand for exports will decimate local donkey populations. In response, the government has banned donkey exports.
Burkina Faso implemented similar regulations last month. In Ouagadougou, the situation was reportedly discussed twice in cabinet meetings before the ban was announced.
In South Africa, meanwhile, the surge in demand has led to a rise in cruelty towards, and theft of, donkeys. In a statement released this month the National Council of Societies for the Protection of Animals (NSPCA) said it was “horrified to confirm that donkeys are the latest victims of the trade in animal parts ‘for medicinal purposes’ to the far east. Donkeys are being rounded up, stolen, then transported and brutally slaughtered for their skins.”
The NSPCA cited one incident in which 70 “sick, weak and emaciated” donkeys were discovered on a plot outside Bloemfontein. The owner confirmed he intended to ship their skins to China.