Australian senators Lee Rhiannon and Derryn Hinch have spoken out against their government’s plans to allow a live export trade in donkeys and horses.

On Monday June 26, the senators introduced the Export Control Amendment Bill to the Australian Senate. If it is passed, the amendment will prohibit the live export of horses and donkeys for the purpose of slaughter overseas.

Explaining the rationale behind the proposed amendment, Rhiannon said:
“Numerous countries are now banning the donkey and horse live export trade… Low income countries are fighting this trade. Their impoverished communities, who rely on donkeys as transport for water and goods, and as agricultural beasts of burden, have been priced out of ownership and had their animals stolen since this trade took off. We should stand with these countries.”

The number of donkeys in African countries has thinned dramatically in recent years: Kenya’s donkey population, for example, has fallen by half since 2009, to 900,000. The primary cause is neither disease nor declining demand for live donkeys, but instead a burgeoning market for their skins.

The market is driven by Chinese demand for ejiao, a gelatine made by boiling and refining donkey skin to produce a tonic taken as an elixir. As China grew richer in the 1990s and 2000s, demand for ejiao grew and fewer donkeys were needed in China for agriculture and transport. As a result, China’s donkey population declined from 11 million in 1990 to five million in 2016. Because donkeys are relatively poor breeders, China no longer has enough of them to satisfy demand for ejiao, and it is importing donkeys and donkey skins from all over the world.

Africa is its biggest source of skins. In Kenya, the price of a donkey soared by 325% during a six-month period last year. From 2011 to 2016, the number of donkeys fell by 60% in Botswana and a fifth in Lesotho. Countries all over the world are affected by the trade. In Kyrgyzstan, which borders China, and in India, donkey populations fell by a fifth during 2015 and 2016 alone.

Farther afield, Colombia lost almost a tenth of its donkeys and Brazil around 5% over the same period. Some South American donkeys are transported more than 1,000 km for slaughter, demonstrating the reach of the Chinese demand.
Poor farmers cannot be blamed for selling their donkeys for sums that dwarf their value as draft animals. But in many cases, the vendors are not the actual owners. Instead, thieves have begun stealing donkeys in order to take advantage of the surging prices, leaving farmers without their most valuable agricultural support. In response, around 15 countries have taken measures to curb the donkey trade, such as refusing permits for exports. In 2015, Pakistan became the first country to ban the export of donkey hides. Several African countries, including Botswana, now prohibit exports to China.

Political Animal Lobby (PAL) spokesman, David Barritt, said it was heartening to see the global kickback against the trade in donkeys and donkey products. He congratulated the Australian senators Lee Rhiannon and Derryn Hinch for taking a stand against a trade that is leading to the brutal slaughter of millions of animals across Africa, and which has the potential to destroy rural communities.

“People in developing countries and developed countries are standing together against this senseless killing,” said Barritt, pointing to Zimbabwe which just this month refused to license the country’s first donkey abbatoir in Bulawayo.

“It was opposition from animal lovers that stopped the abbatoir from opening,” said Barritt.

The abbatoir would have processed up to 70 donkeys per day to meet demand for donkey skins.

But Barritt noted that animal welfare activists have a long fight ahead of them. The popularity of ejiao is growing amongst China’s middle class and the country is not paying attention to the global outcry against the donkey slaughter. In January China boosted the trade in donkey skins by reducing the tariff on imports from 5% to 2%.