Africa’s donkey disaster

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Donkeys are the backbone of many agrarian economies, but Kenya has become a hotbed for the illegal donkey skin trade. Georgina Lockwood tells us more

Five facts

• 1 000: Donkeys killed per day for their skins.

• 38 000: Households implicated in donkey theft.

• 301 977: The number of donkeys slaughtered from 2016 to 2018.

• 60: Number of donkeys stolen per week in 2017.

• 1,8 million: Kenya’s donkey population according to a 2009 census.

A visit to one of the school children of the Mathangaura primary school, and his donkey. Photo: Petterik Wiggers

Lamu, Kenya, also known as Donkey Island, is a bougainvillea, donkey and dhow utopia. These large-eared equids with their forlorn faces are an intricate part of island life and rural Kenya. But the illegal slaughter and theft of these animals has become a huge problem for the country’s subsistence farmers.

Approximately 4,8 million donkeys are killed every year to sustain traditional medicine markets in the Far East. A traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao is made from a gelatine-like substance extracted from boiled donkey skin. In the Far East it is believed to have anti-ageing properties and enhance libido.

As a result, China’s donkey population has decreased by 76% since 1992. To keep up with demand China is now importing donkey skins from other parts of the world, with serious implications for Africa.

Kenya has become a focal point of the donkey skin trade with the opening of four government-licensed slaughterhouses. “While slaughterhouses in Kenya are on record as being Kenyan-owned, the directors and owners are Chinese,” says Megan Sheraton, communications officer at Brooke, a nonprofit organisation that aims to protect working horses, mules and donkeys in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Brooke believes that by improving the lives of working livestock you can better the lives of the people who depend on them.

Donkeys are kept in secure stables to stop theft.

In 2018, approximately 160 000 donkeys were killed in Kenyan slaughterhouses, translating to 8,1% of
their numbers.

“Between 2016 and 2018, 16 544 tons of donkey skin and meat were exported,” says Lyne Iyadi, information and communication officer at Brooke East Africa.

A report compiled by the Kenya Agriculture and Research Organisation suggests that at the current rate of slaughter donkeys will be extinct in Kenya by 2023.

Illegal trade is now spilling over the borders. Donkeys are smuggled into Kenya from neighbouring Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia where regulations and local outcry prevented governments setting up donkey slaughterhouses.

Ethiopia has the largest donkey population in Africa with about 8,8 million animals. Unable to trade the donkeys here, Abyssinian smugglers herd the animals into the desert along the 250km Moyale Cross Border route into Kenya. Kenya’s latest abattoir is located on the Ethiopian border, adding fuel to the trade.

“These slaughterhouses are graphic and gory and the welfare of the donkeys is not observed,” Iyadi reports.
Donkey smuggling across borders has additional consequences. It resulted in an outbreak of equine flu in West Africa with Niger losing 60 000 donkeys in 2019. Subsequently, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal have banned the export of donkey products and also shut down all their donkey slaughterhouses.

Photo: Petterik Wiggers

“The donkey skin trade crisis in Kenya escalated in 2016 when communities started reporting donkey theft and bush slaughters at an alarming rate,” Iyadi says. If the donkeys aren’t killed or stolen they are sold to pay school fees and medical bills, resolving short-term financial issues. Prices for a mule have increased from R1 485 in 2016 to R2 970 in 2019.

While poverty is a driving force behind donkey sales many people do not want the risk of owning a donkey. “The fear of waking up to a skinned donkey has pushed owners to sell rather than lose their donkeys with no financial compensation,” Iyadi explains.

For those living on the poverty line, a donkey is a lifeline. Almost 60% of Kenyan households own just two donkeys, so the loss of one is a serious blow. The donkeys are important to family livelihoods, providing a vital form of transport for food, water and access to markets. Those hardest hit by the illegal donkey trade are society’s most vulnerable – women, children, the elderly and the disabled, who rely heavily on the animals for transport.

Donkeys have been domesticated for over 5 000 years and evolved from the critically endangered African wild ass (Equus africanus). “Donkey traders will go to great lengths, the question is what next? Will the rare African wild ass become a target?” Iyadi asks.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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