Article written by Jevans Nyabiage
Originally published by msn.com (Mon, Dec 29, 2023)
The African Union and Brazil are on the verge of banning the trade of donkey skins, adding to the supply issues faced by China, which uses gelatin from the hides to make the traditional Chinese medicine ejiao.
The medicine is claimed to have anti-ageing properties. Once known as a “medicine for emperors”, it is now marketed to China’s affluent population. The donkey collagen is mixed with herbs and other ingredients to make bars, pills and liquids for consumers or in beauty products.
But China’s insatiable demand for ejiao sees the country go through more than 5 million donkeys annually, with only 2 million of those supplied domestically, according to a recent study. The remainder come from imported donkey hides, with the animals often treated cruelly or stolen from farmers who rely on them for their livelihoods.
With donkeys stubbornly difficult to breed – the gestation period can last more than a year – any obstacle to China’s import of their skins is likely to pile on the pressure for the booming ejiao industry.
Last month, the 55-member African Union endorsed a report calling for a 15-year ban on the slaughter of donkeys and export of their skins.
The report’s recommendations will be put to the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government for adoption in February.
African countries such as Tanzania and Ivory Coast have already banned the donkey skin trade, and Kenya had four Chinese-owned donkey slaughterhouses closed in 2020 over increased cases of theft.
“This [approval] is so important for communities in Africa and their donkeys which suffer untold cruelty driven by this insatiable demand for their skins,” Dr Raphael Kinoti, regional director of Brooke East Africa, said.
“We are delighted that the committee recognised the socio-economic contribution of the donkey to livelihoods in Africa and hope every African country will respect this decision and stop this trade to preserve this critical natural heritage and the livelihoods that it supports.”
Meanwhile in Brazil, a bill to ban donkey and horse slaughter was recently passed in its agricultural and environmental commissions, and will now proceed to the parliamentary constitution and justice committee.
Brazil is one of China’s biggest markets for donkey skins, but the animal also holds a lot of cultural significance for the Brazilian people.
“The donkey, due to its historical importance, became a symbol of the struggle, strength, resistance of the [country’s] people, integrating the imaginary Brazilian and constituting a true historical and cultural heritage,” Brazilian congressman Nilto Tatto said at a recent meeting of the environmental commission in Brasilia.
He said the trade in donkeys had contributed to the reduction in its population, not only in Brazil but around the world.
“Considering the benefits to donkeys, the health of the Brazilian population, biosafety, and our cultural history, we voted to approve this bill,” Tatto said.
The bans in Brazil and Africa will effectively cut off supply from two of the biggest markets in the trade. It is a move UK-based charity The Donkey Sanctuary hopes will spur the ejiao industry into looking for sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives.
According to Sian Edwards, head of campaigns at The Donkey Sanctuary, countries with high donkey populations are targeted by the ejiao industry. This includes African countries, Latin American nations, and even Australia with its feral donkey population.
“We conservatively estimate around 4.8 million donkeys [each year] are slaughtered to supply the skins the industry requires for its output of ejiao sales,” Edwards said.
China’s demand for donkey hides to meet its voracious appetite for ejiao has not only led to a domestic shortage – it could be fuelling an illegal trade in other countries.
Africa is home to about two-thirds of the world’s donkeys. Ethiopia is said to be the “world’s donkey superpower” with more than 10 million of the animals. Sudan and Pakistan are also among the world’s top donkey producers.
Demand for Chinese medicine fuelling illicit African donkey trade
Meanwhile, data from the Shandong Ejiao Industry Association shows the market for the traditional Chinese medicine rose from 19.6 billion yuan in 2013 to 53.5 billion yuan in 2020 (around US$7.5 billion).
Lauren Johnston, an -associate professor at the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, said for some of Africa’s poorest and most remote regions, donkeys are a vehicle of both social and physical mobility.
“When a mother has a donkey, she is often free to earn more off-farm income – to get more chores done more efficiently and so can work off-farm and send her children to school,” Johnston said.
But when the donkeys are stolen, or become unaffordable thanks to inflation, it is the poor – and particularly women and girls – who suffer the most.
Johnston said the other issue is that donkeys do not breed quickly, so if they are consumed quickly, it is not possible to replace them immediately.
She said that some experts believe China’s high consumption rate does not only risk the supply of donkeys for ejiao – it risks the availability for donkeys entirely, in their traditional role as a working animal for the poor and geographically marginalised.
A recent study conducted by Johnston for the South African Institute of International Affairs found that China needed more than 5 million donkeys annually – roughly 10 per cent of the global donkey population – to meet the demand for ejiao.
However, the study said only about 2 million hides come from China’s domestic donkey population. Of the 3 million or so hides it imports each year, 25 per cent to 35 per cent are from animals that have been stolen, mostly from small farmers who need the animals to transport their produce.