Is the demand real or a bubble? Either way, donkeys suffer
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan; NAIROBI, Kenya; JOHANNESBURG, South Africa––Developing nations from South Africa to Kyrgyzstan have become urgently concerned about losing their asses in trade deals with China.
Literally. But whether Chinese donkey-brokers are buying donkeys for slaughter because of authentic market demand within China or because of a speculative bubble is unclear.
Donkeys losing places to cheap Chinese-made cars
Also unclear is whether donkeys are available simply because the brokers are willing to pay top prices by local standards, or because the economic value of working donkeys throughout the developing world has recently plummeted, in part because of the rapidly increasing accessibility of inexpensive Chinese-made motor vehicles.
“Kyrgyzstan has signed a contract to export 4,000 donkeys to China, reigniting a row about the ethics and transparency of the trade,” BBC News reported on December 16, 2016, covering the most recent outbreak of similar controversies underway in at least a dozen nations.
“Police in the Osh region in the south of the Central Asian state confirm that lorries (trucks) laden with the live donkeys are already heading for China,” BBC News said.
Above market value
“The price paid per head by a Chinese-Kyrgyz company is above the local market value,” the BBC report continued. “But local concerns about the trade persist, based largely on reports of animals going missing or being kept in residential areas ill-fitted to livestock.
“Some campaigners worry that animals are being slaughtered illegally in Kyrgyzstan,” BBC News summarized, “to avoid the cost of transporting them hundreds of miles over mountain passes. Many people remember a scandal two years ago when meat from skinned donkeys was traced to markets in Bishkek,” the Kyrgyzstan capital city.
While some people involved in the donkey commerce argue that farming donkeys for slaughter could become a profitable new industry in Kyrgyzstan, the BBC observed, others “object to selling an animal whose meat is not permitted under Islamic dietary laws in the mainly-Muslim country.”
Slaughterhouse in Namibia
The debate in Kyrgyzstan echoes others underway in several different regions of Africa.
Reported Desie Heita of The New Era, in Windhoek, Namibia in early October 2016, “In a first development of its kind locally, a Namibian-registered company is about to set up an abattoir in Okahandja to slaughter and process donkey meat and donkey hides for export to China,” under the business name AgriNature Investment & Trade, represented by one Wilson Yang.
Officially, Namibia still has about 200,000 working donkeys. But with motor vehicle ownership in Nambia increasing at about 10% per year since 2009, local demand for donkeys is falling fast.
Botswana, Burkina Faso, Niger
“Botswana already counts donkey meat exports among its most lucrative trade items with China,” Heita wrote. “The Botswana Press Agency previously reported that donkey meat exports are doing so well that Motswana business people exporting donkey meat are planning to build a canned donkey meat-processing facility, while officials from South Africa’s North West province went to China specifically to discuss the possibility of supplying the China with donkey products. In Kenya, two donkey abattoirs opened this year to export to China.
“However, Burkina Faso and Niger have instituted bans on the export of donkeys, donkey meat and hides,” Heita added, “to prevent decimation of the donkey population and to curtail irrational increases in the prices of donkeys on the market, which have now become unaffordable for ordinary African households.”
In Niger the price of a donkey reportedly quadrupled, as exports soared from 27,000 in 2015 to 80,000 in the first nine months of 2016, while in Burkina Faso the price increased “more than eleven-fold,” Heita said.
Goldox Donkey Slaughterhouse
The “boom” aspect of Chinese donkey demand has for about a year now been making headlines and arousing political controversy.
But there is a “bust” side too, evident in Kenya.
“When the multi-million Goldox Donkey Slaughterhouse started operations at Chemogoch in Mogotio, Baringo County,” wrote Francis Mureithi of The Nation in Nairobi, “it was said to be a new window for herders to earn more from their animals. Expectations were high that both herders and the factory would be winners in a venture targeting mainly the export market.
“But the only abattoir for donkeys in Kenya, and perhaps in the region, is largely under-utilized,” Mreithi observed ten weeks after the April 1, 2016 opening, “with investors asking farmers to supply more animals to enable the slaughterhouse to achieve its goal of operating round the clock. The slaughterhouse is yet to export its first consignment. This is blamed on low supply of animals for slaughter. The facility is targeting China, Russia and other Far East countries where donkey products are in high demand.’
Hauling in donkeys from four other nations
Goldox spokesperson Shadrack Mutai told Mreitha that the slaughterhouse had killed about 1,900 donkeys, barely two-thirds of the anticipated average of 100 per day.
Wrote Mreithi, “To bridge the shortfall and attain the export target, Mutai said they were casting their net wider — across the borders — and were now sourcing animals from Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.”
U.S. & Canadian parallel
The African and Central Asian boom in donkey flesh for export to China much resembles the mid-20th century boom in horse slaughter that accompanied the arrival of mechanization in the U.S. and Canada. Tractor dealers often accepted teams of workhorses as down payments, then sold the horses to killer-buyers, an arrangement that ensured a sudden abundance of cheap pre-trained horses would not compete with the growing demand for tractors, and helped to build the commercial dogfood industry.
As the supply of surplus workhorses diminished, the U.S. and Canadian horsemeat industries developed new sources of supply: wild horses, slow racehorses, foals born as part of the pregnant mares’ urine industry, and eventually tens of thousands of riding horses who were abandoned as the Baby Boom generation grew older and mostly gave up riding.
Foreign markets were developed, as well. As recently as the mid-1960s, horse slaughter in the U.S. was still mostly to supply dogfood manufacturers. But by 1980 the U.S. horse slaughter trade mostly supplied restaurant demand from Europe and Japan. As horses cost more and more to acquire and truck to slaughter, the profits fell out of the industry. The nine U.S. horse slaughterhouses still operating as of 1995 had dwindled to just three when Congress cut off the USDA budget for inspecting horse slaughter in 2007, in effect ending horse slaughter for human consumption within the U.S. despite many attempts to revive it.
Chinese donkey population down by nearly half
The Chinese donkey population has fallen from about 11 million to fewer than six million in recent years, as motor vehicle use has more than tripled in the past seven years.
The availability of inexpensive surplus donkeys apparently stimulated production and use of a gelatin derived from donkey hide called e’jiao, used in traditional Chinese medicine, but without any specific medicinal value.
Media including China Daily, the official state newspaper, have suggested––often skeptically––that e’jiao is believed to have “anti-aging properties,” and can treat insomnia and improve blood circulation. It is used in making the same range of products as other gelatins, including tablets, tonics and syrups.
Mostly, though, the demand for e’jiao appears to have been created by vendors of quack cures who perceived the opportunity to buy low and sell high, while China had a donkey surplus, and have now gone abroad to sustain their manufactured market niche.
Summarized a recent bulletin from the National SPCA of South Africa, “The demand for e’jiao in China is such that it requires 5,000 metric tons of donkey hide to be processed each year, which means roughly four million donkeys are slaughtered. But, according to an industry insider, there are only 3,000 metric tons of the skin available annually, including imports that supplement the dwindling local supply. This discrepancy has led to suggestions that up to 40% of the e’jiao supply in China is fake. Some unscrupulous suppliers, various media report, have been mixing donkey hide with cow, pig and horse skins,” whose actual properties are indistinguishable from those of donkey-derived gelatin, “and selling their dermal deceptions as the real deal.
“The interesting thing about this subterfuge,” the National SPCA bulletin continued, “is that cow and pig skin used to be more common traditional Chinese medicinal materials, until donkey peel was found to be more effective in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).”
A more probable explanation is that the rise of Buddhist vegetarianism and later the arrival of Islam during the Tang dynasty coincided with decreased demand for beef and pork, while steadily increasing trade meant more and more use of donkeys. As donkey hides came to be more abundant, donkey-derived gelatin came to be used more––promoted, meanwhile, by whatever claims sold more product.
But e’jiao production does not appear to have ever been a really big business, or ever before part of a boom-and-bust cycle with international repercussions.
Chinese donkey product industry struggling
Qin Yufeng, identified by the Wall Street Journal in 2015 as “a politician in China’s Shandong province, which is responsible for 90% of China’s e’jiao production,” and as “chair of China’s most prestigious producer of the TCM gelatin, Dong’e Ejiao,” has reportedly asked “that donkeys enjoy the same large-scale supportive livestock policies [within China] as cows and sheep,” meaning that donkey production should be subsidized to keep his business profitable.
“Faced with the undersupply of donkeys,” Week In China summarized in February 2016, “Dong’e Ejiao has had to raise the price of its product 16 times in the last 10 years, effecting an annual rise of 23%.”
But Chinese consumer demand does not appear to be strong enough to absorb the increase. Therefore, Week In China continued, summarizing an earlier report from China Daily, “Dong’e Ejiao has been compelled to look to develop other donkey products to diversify revenues. For example, it has teamed up with Shandong Lübang Catering to launch a donkey meat hot pot brand and a donkey meat steamed bun.”
“Exporting meat, skins, & penises”
Regardless of the economic realities, but uncomfortably aware of how Chinese demand has helped to drive elephant, rhino, and pangolin poaching, the African humane community is incensed at the growth in demand for donkeys for slaughter, even if the demand is transient.
“The Chinese are exporting the meat, skins and penises,” alleged Jean Gilchrist, heading the Kenya SPCA since 1988, and in that capacity also hosting the Kenya outreach programs of the British-based organization Donkey Sanctuary, now helping nearly two million donkeys per year with programs in close to 40 nations.
“The offal no doubt finds its way into the local market, though traditionally Kenyans don’t eat donkeys, nor do they want to,” Gilchrist said. “Apart from the fact that many of us don’t like the thought of these animals being killed for the Chinese market, there is the matter of sustainability,” Gilchrist told ANIMALS 24-7. “There are about 1.8 million donkeys in Kenya and there is a lot of talk about breeding donkeys especially for slaughter.
“There is a third slaughterhouse being built in Turkana,” Gilchrist added. “The Turkana have always eaten donkeys, though not in large amounts, so the government in 1999 gazetted them as meat animals to cover the legalities. Nobody realized what would happen in the future. Interestingly enough Bukino Fasa and Senegal were in partnership with the Chinese but have now stopped because they were running out of donkeys. In Ethiopia the local people burned down the slaughterhouse. I have heard a rumour that Nigeria is in the market now, but this is not confirmed. So as far as I know Tanzania and Kenya are the only two countries currently in the business. The Tanzanian slaughterhouse was closed down for a while due to inhumane slaughter and handling. It has started up again and I hear that nobody is now allowed in. Which is a matter for concern.
“One of the Kenya SPCA’s projects is [promoting and monitoring] humane slaughter, so the Chinese have purchased humane killers from us and bullets. We also have access to the slaughterhouses when we want, of which they are well aware.
“Donkey is the backbone of the survival of the poor”
“The role of the donkey here is as a draft animal and the poorest people in the country are dependent on them for a living and will be for a long time yet,” Gilchrist opined, discounting a recent 9% per year rise in registrations of cars and a 28% per year rise in registrations of vans and light pickup trucks.
“The donkey is the backbone of the survival of the poor in Africa,” Gilchrist finished. “To me it is not right that they should be sacrificed to satisfy the whims of a foreign nation.”
Agreed the National SPCA of South Africa, in a series of media statements, “The NSPCA is horrified to confirm that donkeys are the latest victims of the trade in animal parts ‘for medicinal purposes’ to the Far East. Donkeys are being rounded up /stolen, then transported and brutally slaughtered for their skins. In one confirmed instance, 42 donkeys were stolen in the North West province village of Mmaku. The Asian owner of the property where the bodies of the donkeys were found has admitted to stealing the donkeys, slaughtering and skinning them and claiming that ‘they make good medicine.’
“The Bloemfontein SPCA investigated an issue involving 70 sick, weak and emaciated donkeys on a plot outside the city. According to workers, the donkeys had been on the property for two weeks without food or water. The owner of the donkeys stated that he was only interested in the skins to export to China. The donkeys were humanely euthanized and criminal charges in terms of the Animals Protection Act have been laid,” the National SPCA continued.
In October 2016 the National SPCA reported the convictions of four men “after a vehicle was intercepted by personnel from the Polokwane SPCA in late September. It was travelling from Limpopo and apparently on its way to an abattoir in Randfontein, Gauteng, with 41 donkeys loaded onto it. Adult males, females and foals were all in the same compartment with most of the animals in a state of collapse, crushed, dead or dying.
“Humane euthanasia was undertaken to end the suffering of the severely compromised and suffering animals,” the National SPCA summarized.
The four convicted perpetrators were each sentenced to serve ten months in prison.
“We of the Pan African Animal Welfare Alliance are concerned and disturbed by the increasing demand for donkey products,” PAAWA spokesperson Tozie Zokufa told ANIMALS 24-7. “We call on governments to review legislation where it exists and enact new laws” to protect donkeys from mistreatment at the hands of slaughter brokers and slaughterhouses.