An investigation by The Donkey Sanctuary and South Africa’s Oxpecker Environmental and Investigative Journalism has revealed that donkeys are being smuggled into Ghana, from Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso. After being slaughtered in the bush, the donkeys’ skins are sold to local middlemen, acting on behalf of Chinese syndicates, based in Accra. The meat goes to cities like Kumasi, Takoradi and Accra, to be sold as bush meat.

David Barritt, campaign director for Network for Animals (NFA), says that because of Chinese demand for donkey skins, donkeys are being wiped out in Africa. “The donkeys suffer cruelty when being transported to market and are then, often illegally, slaughtered in the wild. It is taking a terrible toll on these animals and has serious consequences for the lives of rural people, who use donkeys as transport,” he said.

Barritt added that African governments have been slow to wake up to the unfolding crisis and called for concerted action by African nations to combat the trade.

Bolgatanga, which is close to Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso, is now the country’s biggest donkey market. People linked to hide-dealing syndicates of Ghanaians and Burkinabes, buy donkeys to slaughter in the bush. They do it under the cover of slaughtering for meat, at family gatherings, festivals and other celebrations.

Burkinabe trader Alexious Frafra told Oxpeckers that most donkeys sold in Bolgatanga are stolen from Mali and Burkina Faso. Due to high demand and its powerful currency, Ghana remains the top regional market for donkeys in West Africa.

“Most of the donkeys here come from Mali, but people generally think they are from Burkina Faso because they come via Burkina Faso and are sold by Burkinabes. But no, some even come from Senegal.”

“Most traders here know and work with thieves from Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal since Ghanaians do not sell donkeys anymore. They only come here to buy.

Amadu Hudu, director of the Development and Environmental Protection Organization in Ghana (Donyaepa), said the resilience of the underground donkey trade in northern Ghana is a legacy of four years of plunder of local donkey populations by Blue Coast Abattoir, owned by Chinese trader Nicholas Liu.

Blue Coast shut down operations after a directive from Ghana’s Veterinary Services Directorate in January 2017 restricted permits for the movement, slaughter and export of donkeys, but Liu has recently started re-building the abattoir.

“Some telling legacies of that abattoir include the obvious scarcity of donkeys and the feeling of utter loss and deprivation that becomes apparent when you talk to all whose lives were touched.”

“Its biggest legacy was to plant a culture of donkey theft and plunder. Attitudes have changed, and people don’t see donkeys only as working animals anymore. They see them as quick cash,” Hudu said.

“Donkeys sold into the hide trade in Africa, are often treated cruelly throughout the transportation and slaughter processes,” international equine welfare organization SPANA said in an assessment, released in January this year.

The organization noted Chinese profiteers had turned to Africa, after slaughter of China’s donkey populations, for donkey-hide glue, or Ejiao, had reduced its own donkey population, from 11-million in 1990 to 5.4-million in 2016. Ejiao is packaged and marketed as a treatment for various old age-related ailments.

“This trade is having a significant impact in a number of countries where SPANA works – for instance, Botswana’s donkey population decreased by 38% in two years,” the organization said.

Oxpeckers’s investigations in various Southern, East and West African countries have shown that donkeys are critical to the livelihoods of many poor communities. In central and southern Mali, up to 2,000 donkeys are still sold at livestock markets a month for domestic uses such as ploughing, hauling loads and transporting water.

The increased demand for skins has raised the price of the animals by up to four times, making them unaffordable and incentivizing rampant theft.

“To close the illegal donkey meat and hide trade, the Ghanaian government must enforce border controls along the borders with Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso,” Donyaepa’s Hudu said.

“Donkeys in West Africa can still be saved, but only if Ghana enacts and enforces laws to stop the smuggling and trading of stolen donkeys in the country.”