New research into global donkey population trends has indicated that, following an explosion of trading in the animal's skins, the species could soon face population collapse.
British newspaper the Evening Standard reported on the study commissioned by animal welfare group The Donkey Sanctuary. It stated that the world population of the animals has declined precipitously in the last 25 years, and may face extinction in the foreseeable future.
Donkey skins are a key ingredient in animal gelatin, used as an ingredient called ejiao in traditional Chinese medicine. Among practitioners, ejiao is believed to have curative effects against dizziness, bleeding and insomnia, and often served dissolved in hot water or wine.
The study estimated that 4.8 million donkeys—more than 10 percent of the global population of 44 million—are killed every year to meet the demand for ejiao.
China's donkey population fell from 11 million in 1992 to 2.6 million in 2019, creating a market in other companies across the developing world.
"These dependable, hard working, sentient animals experience appalling suffering as a result of the activities of skin traders across the world. They are often transported long distances, without food,water or rest and they can be held for days in yards without shelter, before being slaughtered in often brutal conditions," The Donkey Sanctuary's CEO Mike Baker said in the report.
The slow reproductive cycle of the donkey has made it difficult to replenish their populations. A mother donkey carries her foal for a year, and the species has been known to encounter fertility issues in farm conditions.
Donkeys have long served as pack animals in many parts of the developing world, and owning one has often represented a path out of poverty for the most needy, providing an aid in physical labor for farming and transporting goods. But the demand for slaughtered animals has made acquiring them more difficult. The price of a donkey in Kenya, for instance, has more than doubled in the last three years.
Multiple African countries have already banned the export of donkey gelatin to China, including Niger, Uganda and Burkina Faso. Other nations, including Kenya and South Africa, are investing heavily in infrastructure and increasing donkey skin exports.
Chinese medicine has had detrimental effects on numerous other animal species. Rhinoceroses, which are killed for their horns, saw a tenfold increase in poaching deaths from 2008 to 2013 according to the South African Department of Animal Affairs. Meanwhile, China has begun efforts to adapt to the times, banning the import of tiger bones, which were previously a valuable medicinal ingredient, in 1993.