Donkey poaching: a growing global threat

When you think of illegal poaching, the first thing that comes to mind is rhinos, or maybe elephants. But a
growing animal welfare and economic threat from traditional Chinese medicine is to the global donkey population.

The poachers are after donkey hides to produce something called ejiao. Otherwise known as donkey-hide gelatine or ass-hide glue, it is a gelatinous substance prepared by soaking and stewing donkey hides. Used for centuries as an ingredient in TCM, the use of ejiao was restricted to members of the Emperor’s court. Today,
it is widely used in cosmetic creams claiming to preserve youthful looks, as a medical cure and edible snack. With the Chinese economy booming and the virtues of ejiao promoted heavily on the Internet, there is an exploding market for donkey hides.

The increasing illegal trade in donkey hides is devastating local communities in developing countries. Most of the estimated 44 million donkeys worldwide are working animals, with a significant number in economically developing African nations.1 The money earned by each working animal can support between 5 and 20 family members. Having a donkey stolen means owners are without the animal they need most for earning a living, affecting access to food, water and education. In some areas of Kenya, nearly 1000 donkeys were reported stolen and/or slaughtered between December 2016 and April 2017.1 The increase in demand for
donkey hides also means the costs of purchasing an animal have more than doubled, putting them out of reach of local people.

The increasing demand for donkey skins has also become a major animal welfare issue, with slaughterhouses in Kenya and Ethiopia closed following extreme welfare concerns, highlighted by the Donkey Sanctuary of Kenya and the Kenyan SPCA. Horrific videos on the UK-based Donkey Sanctuary website show first-hand the welfare problems.

Projections for the global demand for donkey skins is between 4 and 10 million hides, with an estimated minimum of 1.8 million skins traded per year.1 The Global Times China quotes ejiao use at 5000 tonnes and donkey hides reaching 4 million units.2 Extrapolating from this, China needs 11 million donkeys on farms to meet demand. However, China's donkey herds have been on the decline over the past 20 years, resulting in a
serious lack of supply, and this is driving the illegal trade. Some in China, however, who see the donkey-hide trade as a ‘win-win’, claiming that the Chinese imports solve the problem of donkey overpopulation in some countries.2

Australia also appears to be a potential target in this booming international trade, and it is likely to be an ongoing issue because of the extraordinary numbers of feral donkeys that are devastating parts of the Northern Territory. Chinese groups have called for local donkey farming, with export to China for slaughter. The Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Resources has been quoted as giving in-principal support for the development of a profitable donkey industry.3

Qin Yufeng, CEO of the pharmaceutical company that produces ejiao, believes that it is reasonable to take advantage of global resources to meet this demand, suggesting that Australian donkey exports should follow the model of China's demand for Australian beef. Qin noted that keeping the local oversupply of wild donkeys in the Northern Territory in captivity, would “bring benefits to Australia's natural environment and economic growth.”2 Chinese delegations have been to the Northern Territory with the aim of signing a breeding agreement covering 10,000–20,000 donkeys.

The RSPCA has expressed grave concern over the health and welfare issues associated with keeping donkeys in large herds, because they live in small family structures that are not amenable to ranching.

The Australian Senate passed a motion in June, calling on the Government “to heed community expectations and definitively ban the export of live horses, ponies and donkeys for slaughter.”
So the concept of live equid export for slaughter is, at least at Senate level, unlikely to proceed for now.

But what of the issue of donkey poaching? The Brooke (www.thebrooke.org) is an international animal welfare charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules, and is working towards reducing donkey thefts. They organised a national workshop at the Commonwealth Veterinary
Association and the Kenyan Veterinary Association meeting in April this year. This was part of the joint Golden Jubilee celebrations that celebrated 50 years of veterinary contribution to sustainable livelihoods and growth in developing countries.
The workshop covered donkey slaughter, its effect on animals and communities, and the best way of tackling the challenges of poaching. With over 60 delegates attending, the meeting secured commitments from the government, other animal welfare organisations and community members on what can be done to minimise the negative results of the trade.

Anne Jackson

Editor in Chief

 

References

1. The Donkey Sanctuary. Under the skin: the emerging trade in donkey skins and its implications for donkey welfare and livelihoods. The Donkey Sanctuary, January 2017 www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/under-the-skin.
2. Donkey imports linked to use in traditional cures. https://dpir.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/373642/donkey-business-discussion-paper.pdf.
Accessed August 2017.
3. Department of Primary Industry and Resources. Donkey business: potential of the donkey industry in the Northern Territory. Northern Territory Government, September 2016.

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal 

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