LALITPUR PATAN, Nepal––Some of the donkeys, mules, and ponies who have survived hard use in the brickyards of the southern Kathmandu Valley may long outlive the local brick industry. Given good sanctuary care, some of these hard-used equines may live 30 years or more. Under 15 years ago most of the brickyards were terraced small farms, whose fertile alluvial clay had not yet been stripped. Hundreds of coal-fired kilns with towering chimneys did not yet belch out smoke that conceals the Himalayas. Fifteen years from now, the last of the brickyards may long since have yielded to urban sprawl. Once the clay is exhausted, little can be done with the land except to pave roads and build on it. Land leveled for building is in demand. The Kathmandu metropolis exploded from 1.6 million people in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2011, and may double before leveling off.
Animal advocates and Nepalese news media first noted the arrival of brickyard equines in 2008. Some may have been imported earlier from the Terai region of southern Nepal and from Bihar state, India, but attention to their presence only began after there were as many as 1,000 at work, in a region where equine use had historically been rare. Within another year the numbers of brickyard equines were said to have tripled, to about 3,000.
But as more Nepalese became able to buy trucks, demand for donkeys, mules, and ponies slipped. There are now about 1,000 equines left on the job, including “350 in Lalitpur district, 350 in Kathmandu district, and 300 in Bhaktapur district,” according Animal Nepal volunteer director Lucia DeVries
Today the most successful brickyards use trucks; donkeys, mules, ponies, and some of the poorest of poor human laborers struggle on where the good clay remaining is thinnest, and the vegetation available for grazing is thinner still. “No labor inspector ever visits the kilns to monitor the thousands of migrant laborers, and no government department monitors the horses, mules and donkeys who work here,” wrote DeVries and Animal Nepal board member Pramada Shah in October 2010, when the brickmaking boom was peaking.
“The work is seasonal,” Shah and De Vries explained. “Although the molding of bricks only starts in November, contracting laborers, both human and animal, starts as early as August. Naikis, or middle men, sign deals with kiln owners to provide laborers. They use loans to lure the most desperate. Once laborers have taken a loan from a naiki, they are bonded: their salaries, minus the loans, will only be paid when the season ends. Almost all brick kiln workers live in makeshift shelters inside the factory premises. The children suffer from respiratory problems caused by dust particles and black smoke produced by the kilns. About 85% of the children drop out of school. “The conditions of the working donkeys of the Kathmandu Valley are as dark as those of the children,” Shah and DeVries continued. “The equines fail to receive basic case such as nutritious food, water, rest, and shelter, and are continuously overloaded and overworked. Injuries go untreated; severely ill animals are left to die. The animals are beaten relentlessly by their handlers, mostly children, some as young as six years old.”
Animal Nepal humane education includes teaching child laborers how to brush their teeth and wash their hands, in the belief that it is not possible to teach people to take better care of equines until they know how to take better care of themselves. Naikis typically offer rural people the equivalent of about $5.00 per equine they bring. Some of them bring equines who are unfit for work, hoping to collect the bounty before the animals’ infirmities are discovered. Two Donkey Sanctuary veterinarians conducting equine aid camps in January 2014 said they had seen some of the same equines repeatedly, as they were rejected by one brickyard owner after another. Sometimes some of these animals are surrendered to the Godavari Donkey Sanctuary, operated by Animal Nepal, but the original sanctuary location is both full, with 17 donkeys currently in care, and operating with a tight budget. The Donkey Sanctuary pays only for veterinary outreach work. The Australian animal charity Animal Aid Abroad and the U.S, charity Help Animals India have helped to meet operating costs.
Yet expansion is underway. Across a valley from the Godavari Donkey Sanctuary, which is accessible only on foot or by motorbike, Animal Nepal is building a larger facility near the village of Badikhel. Dutch engineering student Stefan Kaseboer and 10 local laborers have nearly completed a barn made from earthbags, adobe, and recycled metal. The Animal Nepal Working Donkey Outreach Program began in 2008, soon after the numbers of brickyard equines became evident. “We conduct medical camps, provide first aid boxes and improved harnesses, and educate factory and equine owners,” summarizes De Vries. “The condition of the working equines in Lalitpur has improved, but we have witnessed the deaths of countless donkeys for whom help came too late.”