Beasts of burden under siege

8th March 2024

By: Martin Zhuwakinyu

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Rhino and elephant poaching afflicts many African countries that are home to these endangered species, and the main driver behind this scourge is seemingly insatiable demand by the Chinese and other Asians for the tusks and other body parts of these giant mammals. Now the humble donkey, a treasured possession in peasant communities in many parts of Africa, has been added to the hit list.

The value of a donkey may not be obvious to many of us. But think of the millions across the continent that this hardy animal frees from drudgery. It provides the most sustainable and affordable means of transporting people, goods and farm inputs and outputs from home to farm to market and vice versa, and to water wells and other places.

Donkeys can also carry heavy loads of firewood, which means that people make fewer trips, thus freeing up labour and time for other income-generating activities. A study conducted in Ghana found that owning a donkey saves an adult up to five hours of labour a week and children twice as much time during the same period.

It’s thus understandable that concern has been raised in many quarters about the export of African donkey pelts by legal and illegal traders alike to China, where a substance called collagen is extracted from them to make an ancient health-related product called ejiao. It’s believed ejiao has properties that strengthen the blood, stop bleeding and improve the quality of humans’ vital fluids and sleep.

China’s ejiao market increased from about $3.2-billion in 2013 to about $7.8-billion in 2022 as incomes rose, the product was popularised through a television series and the Asian country’s population became increasingly older. What’s more, many conventional doctors in China now prescribe ejiao, with some medical aid providers now covering it.

The Donkey Sanctuary, a UK charity, estimates that Chinese yearly consumption of donkey pelts now averages four- to six- million, which represents a sizeable percentage of the world’s donkey population. The soaring demand has seen China’s donkey population plummet from nine-million in 2000 to just over 1.7-million in 2022.

Consequently, about ten years ago, China started turning to Africa, which is home to an estimated 53-million donkeys, about two-thirds of the global population. But donkeys are very slow to raise, which is why the export of their pelts to China by legal and illegal traders alike is a cause for concern.

The trade in donkey pelts has resulted in sharp, sudden declines in the donkey stocks of several countries in Africa. In Kenya, for example, the national herd halved between 2009 and 2019, while in Botswana a third has been lost in recent years.

The African Union (AU) must, therefore, be applauded for its decision in January to impose a continent-wide ban on exports of donkey pelts.

Some countries – the likes of Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tanzania – have had regulations outlawing donkey pelt exports for some time. However, owing to porous boundaries and poor enforcement of the bans, the impact has been minimal. For instance, it has been reported that in parts of the continent donkeys are trafficked from landlocked countries before they are slaughtered in often gruesome conditions in border areas with coastal nations. The hides are then exported to China.

It is dismaying that some African countries have long been reluctant to embrace a ban, contending that it’s their right to decide how to use their natural resources. South Africa is one of the culprits, alongside the likes of Eritrea.

Those in the know say when South Africa introduced quotas as a way to curb exports, the trade simply went underground, leading to a spike in theft. Typically, stolen or illicitly traded donkeys from South Africa are slaughtered inhumanely in bushes or substandard abattoirs in neighbouring Lesotho, before the pelts are exported to China.

The move by the AU is sensible, as it will allow the continent’s donkey herd to recover. One hopes all pelt-exporting countries will come to the party.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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