When you ask Emily Dulin, executive director of Brooke USA, about the donkey skin trade, she starts talking fast.
Millions of donkeys are currently being killed for their hides every year. Overwhelmed slaughterhouses have only one stun bullet for every five donkeys, making for agonizing, inhumane conditions. Add in rampant donkey theft and trafficking, which often ends with brutal butchering in the bush, and you have an equine crisis of international proportions.
But for me, the whole picture doesn’t crystalize until Dulin tells me about a woman Brooke interviewed in Kenya—a woman who, like many in her village, has started bringing her donkey into her home at night for safe keeping.
“She told us, ‘If I don’t have my donkey, I am the donkey,’ ” said Dulin. “That’s what losing a donkey means in a developing country. It means losing your livelihood. For people who are already very, very poor, that means plunging deeper and deeper into poverty.”
Donkeys have come under threat due to skyrocketing demand for “ejiao,” a gelatin derived from boiled donkey hides that purveyors of traditional Chinese medicine prescribe as a treatment for everything from infertility and wrinkles to cancer. While its medicinal properties have never been proven, ejiao has seen use by China’s ruling class for centuries, but like rhino horns and tooth of the tiger, the ingredient remained too rare and expensive for the bulk of the population.
However, with the birth of the Chinese middle class around the turn of the millennia, that’s changed. According to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 76 percent of China’s urban population will be considered middle class by 2022, up from just 4 percent in 2000.
“A strong middle class fuels a demand for all kinds of luxury goods,” Dulin explained. “They purchase Louis Vuitton; they purchase Gucci. Ejiao’s the same kind of thing. Now that people have access to markets and cash on hand, demand has increased exponentially.”
The demand for donkey hides has risen for decades, but it doubled in the past three years. China has already slaughtered much of its own donkey population, reducing their total number from 11 million in 1990 to 4.6 million in 2016. A ChinaDaily.com article reported that 5,000 tons of ejiao are produced annually, which requires around 4 million donkey hides. Prices have risen from around $30 a kilogram in 2000 to over $780 today according to Chinese state-run media reports.
As the local supply diminished, China has looked to developing nations where donkeys are abundant and cheap.
At least, they used to be. Donkey prices in parts of Africa have quadrupled, increasing the motivation of smugglers and making cash offers harder for donkey owners to resist.
“If someone comes to you and offers you money for your car, much, much more than you paid for it, you may say yes because that helps you in your immediate future,” Dulin said. “But right now in Africa, if you sell your donkey, you cannot replace it. It’s a vicious circle that puts the well-being of entire families in jeopardy.”
Donkeys serve as a critical lifeline in developing communities. They carry water, food and goods for families. They bring kids to school. They participate in farming operations and play crucial roles in small businesses.
But donkeys aren’t easy to breed. Like horses, they have a long gestation cycle—up to 14 months. They’re also vulnerable to hyperlipemia, a disease brought on by stress or changes in nutrition that can lead to sudden death and miscarriage.
With the current rate of demand, breeding isn’t a viable option. As a result, working donkeys and their owners are at risk.
“Some countries have already put bans in place, but they have to move from country to country to really work,” Dulin said. “Take what happened in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a ban on donkey slaughter, but because Kenya doesn’t, there’s a movement of Ethiopian donkeys illegally into Kenya for slaughter. Ethiopia has the most donkeys of any country in the world, so that’s a huge problem.”
At the current rate of slaughter, Kenya will have no donkeys left by 2023, according to data from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization. Sixty donkeys are stolen every week from communities in Kenya, leaving the remaining donkeys overworked and at increased risk of theft.
In 2017, Brooke, the sister organization to Brooke USA, brought together 200 donkey welfare groups to launch the Linda Punda Ushinde Challenge (“Protect Your Donkey And Win”), which they continue to push around the African continent.
“Our goal with Punda Ushinde is to teach people how to protect their donkeys in a way that is cost effective and sustainable,” Dulin said. “We came up with ideas like installing solar-powered security lights, putting bells on shelter doors, having guard dogs and a watch system where community members take turns protecting the donkeys at night.”
While local efforts may help protect donkeys in at-risk communities in the short term, the lobbying arm of donkey welfare groups like Brooke are hoping to stop the skin trade altogether. Alongside The Donkey Sanctuary, SPANA and other groups, Brooke representatives are working with locals to push for legislation to outlaw the donkey trade at the woredas, or state level in Kenya, at the national level and the pan-African level.
“It has to start in Kenya, so that’s where we are focusing our efforts,” Dulin said. “Kenya has four legal slaughterhouses where conditions are already so bad, they won’t let our groups in to see them. And it’s just going to get worse. But, if you ban slaughter in Kenya, you effectively solidify the ban in Ethiopia and surrounding states as well. Then, it spreads throughout the region.”
But the work won’t stop in Africa. Nations as far away as Brazil have been swept into the lucrative ejiao business. Although 17 countries have signed donkey trade bans, high demand and low GDPs means those bans can quickly be reversed. Earlier this year, Pakistan, which implemented one of the first bans back in 2015, announced a plan to begin exporting 80,000 donkeys a year to China as part of a $14.7 million agreement. Pakistan has the world’s third largest population of donkeys, and opening their market to China would have dealt a serious blow to efforts to rein in the skin trade.
But Pakistan shelved the project after objections from local and international animal rights organization.
Brooke USA hopes that by raising funds and support in the United States, they can help their sister organization achieve a similar result in Kenya.
“We must accelerate action,” Dulin said. “We must ban the trade of donkey hides. We must crack down on smuggling. And we must protect the donkeys.”