Ejiao is the name of a traditional Chinese medicine that supposedly treats anemia, reproductive issues and insomnia – though the alleged medicinal properties are unproven. Nonetheless, it's an ingredient in tonics and face creams. Sales of the products are a multimillion dollar business. And it's quite literally killing the world's donkeys.
Millions of donkeys each year are slaughtered so manufacturers in China can boil the skins to extract the gelatin, which is used to make ejiao. According to a 2016 report from Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, around 4 million donkey hides are needed each year to produce enough ejiao for the market in China, but the annual supply of donkeys from China is fewer than 1.8 million. To fill the gap, China is importing donkey skins from developing countries where there are populations of relatively cheap animals.
"The industrial scale at which these animals are being slaughtered is an issue of massive concern," says Simon Pope, rapid response manager at Donkey Sanctuary. "It's probably the biggest issue facing donkeys ever." This year Brooke of the United Kingdom became the latest international animal welfare group to condemn the donkey skins trade.
Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania are among the countries where the donkey population is threatened by voracious demand for their skins, according to animal welfare charities. The donkey population in Botswana, for example, has decreased 39 percent from 229,000 in 2014 to 142,000 in 2016, according to SPANA. In early 2018, SPANA staff in Mali reported that 2,000 donkeys were being sold for slaughter every week at the country's seven major livestock markets.
Dr. Matthew Stone, deputy director general, International Standards and Science, at the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), believes the situation is worsening. Because of demand for ejiao, the legal and illegal trade of donkey products "has recently increased, causing major impacts on the rural livelihoods, donkey populations health and welfare and the environment worldwide," he says.
The problem is also spreading in countries such as Brazil.
"The industry is growing so fast that existing laws haven't caught up," says Pope of Donkey Sanctuary, who visited the country last fall. He interviewed people on the ground who told him that donkeys might be transported long distances for several days by truck and are given no food or water while they await slaughter in overcrowded pens.
Some of these donkeys are stolen from their owners, according to reports obtained by the animal rights groups. For example, 705 donkeys were stolen in Kajiado County, Kenya between December 2016 and March 2017, according to Brooke East Africa — as reported by donkey owners to the group's local partner organizations.
And while many donkeys are slaughtered in legal, government-sanctioned slaughterhouses, these stolen donkeys often end up in small-scale slaughterhouses, which kill them under inhumane conditions, according to a report from Donkey Sanctuary.
This kind of inhumane donkey slaughter is especially acute in Africa, the groups say, where China has a strong presence because of business ventures, such as building large infrastructure projects.
One of the pilfered animals belonged to Francis Dayou of Kenya, who owned a donkey that transported water in the town of Naivasha. In his community, "donkeys are very important," he says. People rely on them for transporting farm goods, people and water. But his donkey, named Master, was stolen in 2017.
That was "very painful," recalls Dayou. Without income from transporting water, he had difficulty paying his high school fees. He had to do lower-paying work: transporting goods with a wheelbarrow, odd jobs on construction sites. Dayou reported the theft to the police, but they couldn't trace the donkey. He's well aware of the donkey skins trade. "It should be closed straight away. All donkeys are being taken away," he says.
Even when owners willingly sell a spare donkey to make money, they may not realize the long-term impact on their livelihoods. With skins in such high demand, prices for donkeys have doubled, tripled or quadrupled so owners can't replace donkeys they have sold or buy new ones if their donkeys are stolen.
In Kenya, for example, prices jumped from $40 per animal to over $160 from February to August 2017
Breeding more donkeys is not a solution. With a 10-to-14 month period of gestation, the animals can't be bred fast enough to fulfill demands for ejiao. Donkeys are also prone to hyperlipemia, a stress-related condition that can cause them to drop dead or suffer spontaneous abortions.
"If you were going to breed an animal, donkeys wouldn't be top of most people's list," Pope of Donkey Sanctuary observes. So the charity is lobbying African governments to enforce existing restrictions on the skin trade. It also lobbied e-commerce website eBay, which agreed to stop selling ejiao products in Dec. 2017.
Other countries have put a halt to slaughter and export. In Zimbabwe, a slaughterhouse had proposed killing about 12,000 donkeys per year. "That would have equated to a loss of almost a tenth of the country's donkey population in just 12 months," estimates Dennis from SPANA. Those plans were halted in 2017. Botswana and Tanzania in 2017 followed Niger, which banned exports and restricted the skins trade in 2016.
In 2017, Uganda banned the trading of donkeys for slaughter and ordered closures of donkey slaughterhouses. The decision was reportedly due to the negative consequences on households that rely on donkeys to transport everything from water to harvested foods to be sold at market.
But such steps don't necessarily stop the trade. "In some cases, this has led to the emergence of a black market and an explosion in donkey thefts," says Dennis.
SPANA last year called for an immediate halt to the ejiao trade in Africa while its impact is assessed. It is working closely with a number of African governments to implement bans or restrictions on slaughtering donkeys and exporting donkey products.
Both SPANA and Donkey Sanctuary are training people to build fenced corrals for donkeys to secure the animals. Some people in Kenya are bringing donkeys into their huts at night and sleeping next to them to protect them, says Pope. Donkey Sanctuary is also helping to run workshops with local authorities and police to enforce bans on the illegal trade, track the underground trade and take action on reports of stolen donkeys.
Brooke is working with communities to raise awareness of the consequences of the skin trade. "We're making sure owners understand the life-time value of donkeys and the significant risk to livelihoods of sale for immediate income," says Whear. In 2017, Brooke East Africa invited more than 200 donkey welfare groups in Kenya to share ideas about reducing donkey thefts. They included lockable donkey shelters, solar powered security lights, guard dogs, and community surveillance hubs, though implementation depends on funding and resources.
Both SPANA and Donkey Sanctuary are training people on building fenced corrals for donkeys and securing the animals. Donkey Sanctuary is also helping to run workshops with local authorities and police to enforce bans, track the underground trade, and take action on reports of stolen donkeys. Some people in Kenya are bringing donkeys into their huts at night and sleeping next to them to protect them, notes Pope.
Tracking and stopping a booming and often illicit trade in Africa and South America is a huge task for relatively small animal welfare non-profits such as Donkey Sanctuary. "When the sanctuary was set up, we didn't think we'd ever be doing this kind of work," says Pope, who worked in anti-wildlife poaching in Namibia before joining Donkey Sanctuary. "We're horrified it's come to this. We've got to rise to the challenge. It's the biggest thing this organization has done and will do."
The AVMA recently joined a host of veterinary and animal welfare organizations in condemning the global trade in donkey skins as an inhumane industry that harms communities and threatens the species worldwide.
For centuries, people in China have treated dizziness and other medical conditions with "ejiao," an herbal remedy made with a gelatin obtained by boiling and stewing donkey skin.
Demand for ejiao has spiked dramatically during the past decade, so much so that China now imports donkey skins from around the world, including Brazil and Mexico, and poaching is common. With Africa as the epicenter of the donkey-skin trade, entire areas in West Africa have reported localized donkey extinctions, according to the World Veterinary Association.
The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates China's population of donkeys has plummeted from roughly 11 million within recent years to approximately 5.4 million in 2016.
Although China's ejiao industry is investing in donkey breeding programs, consumer demand is not being met. Donkeys are poorly suited to intensive breeding practices because of long gestation periods, low fecundity, low success rates of artificial insemination, and high propensity to abortion and death secondary to stress, the WVA states.
At the Nov. 9, 2018, meeting of the AVMA Board of Directors, members approved a proposal from the Animal Welfare Committee and Committee on International Veterinary Affairs to endorse a statement from the American Association of Equine Practitioners condemning the donkey-skin trade. The AAEP statement reads as follows:
"The American Association of Equine Practitioners joins international equine welfare organizations in condemning the inhumane transport and killing of donkeys to satisfy the escalating global trade in donkey skins. It is estimated that a minimum of 1.8 million donkey skins are traded each year to create a substance known as ejiao, which is used in Chinese beauty products and traditional medicines.
"In addition to welfare concerns for the animals' treatment, this issue is especially devastating in developing countries where donkeys are essential to the livelihoods of millions of the world's poorest people. Families lose their income overnight because of donkey theft. Buying a new animal often is not an option due to rising market prices caused by depopulation. The loss of a donkey also jeopardizes transport of children to school and limits the growth of women in community-related roles.
"The AAEP supports the ongoing work of equine welfare organizations to end the inhumane treatment of donkeys affected by the trade in skins and is committed to creating awareness of this issue within the veterinary community in North America."
Dr. Margo Macpherson, AAEP immediate past president, said: "The AVMA's endorsement strengthens the position's impact in the global arena. We appreciate the AVMA's continued consideration of issues affecting the humane treatment of equids and willingness to work with the AAEP."
In the AVMA committees' proposal, they explain how the poaching of donkeys is increasing the risk of spreading diseases and is severely compromising the welfare of donkeys through poor handling, transportation, and slaughter techniques.
Poaching continues to spread, the recommendation continues, and the AAEP representative to the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee has expressed the AAEP's concerns that the donkey skin trade will reach the United States in the future. This is especially concerning because of the country's vulnerable population of wild burros in Western states.
The WVA has called for a halt of the trade in donkey skins until its impact can be assessed and shown to be both humane for donkeys and sustainable for the communities that depend on them.
Source: American Veterinary Medical Association
In Africa, donkeys work carrying loads of goods and water for people. But in China, African donkeys are a source for a trendy, supposedly medicinal product, and the animals are losing their skins, and lives, for it.
At donkey slaughterhouses, workers kill and skin donkeys, then dump their bodies in a pile or bury them. They take the skins and boil them down, extracting the gelatin from them to make it into a product called ejiao, which has the consistency of thick Jell-O. China buys ejiao, which has traditionally be used for it's supposed blood-circulation benefits, but recently has been marketed as a general wellness product. In the last decade, traditional Chinese medicine company Dong-e-e-jiao, has aggressively marketed their donkey-gelatin product, processing a million of the animals per year.
The effectiveness of ejiao as a treatment for blood circulation and cancer has not been established in comparison to standard medicine.
Workers hold a donkey's hide before curing at a licensed slaughterhouse specialized in donkeys in Baringo, on February 28, 2017. The emergence of the global trade in donkey hide attributed mainly to the rise of China's middle class and an increased perception of the medicinal efficacy of a gelatin derived after boiling the hides, that is a key ingredient in a medicine called 'ejiao' has raised the price and the rate of slaughter of the animal. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Chinese-owned donkey slaughterhouses are springing up in Africa to meet the demand for ejiao. Slaughterhouse owners say that they are providing income to people who want to sell their unwanted animals, but veterinarians insist that the collection and processing of these animals represent an animal welfare nightmare, according to the report. The article also cites donkey owners who claim that their animals have been stolen and killed for their skin.
In April, the animal welfare charity Brooke reported that almost 1,000 donkeys had been stolen in Kenya from December 2016 to April 2017, and the increasing price for donkeys means that people who lose their animals can't afford to replace them. With no animals to assist in ferrying goods, the incomes of people who depended on donkeys have plummeted.
The welfare of the processed animals is in question, and the Kenyan Veterinary Association has protested the industry. National Geographic reported in September an account from a representative of the South African SPCA, who reported that 70 donkeys waiting to be skinned in a corral was the worst animal welfare violation she had ever seen. Emaciated donkeys picked through trash, some too weak to stand, many infected with herpes. Donkeys don't often carry pregnancies to term under stress, and the representative found 19 aborted donkey fetuses on the ground.
In response to concerns of animal theft and the plummeting donkey population, several countries have banned the export of donkey products to China, including Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, according to a BBC article published in October. Kenya also brings in animals from other countries to slaughter.
But legal trade from Kenya and underground trade in illegal countries continues, according to the National Geographic investigation. Once made into products that are legal to sell, animal parts are difficult to trace, and it's nearly impossible to tell if a processed item sold in a store or on the Internet was once a beloved, working family pet.