The Donkey Sanctuary saddles up
Free download from https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/under-the-skin/full-report
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
BEIJING––Can demand for a commodity that constitutes only one ten-thousandth of the global market for traditional Chinese medicine really pose what Donkey Rescue World blogger David C. Duncan calls “an existential threat” to barnyard animals as abundant worldwide as donkeys?
This is not about highly endangered tigers, rhinos, elephants, or even pangolins, all eight species of which were once listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as “species of least concern,” but since July 2014 are all considered “vulnerable” or “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
10th most abundant species
This is about the common ass, domestic animals who until recently were the tenth most abundant species in captivity, according to United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization data.
Only chickens, turkeys, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, dogs and cats (the latter not tracked by the FAO) were believed to be more numerous.
But donkeys fall into a unique and difficult niche: that of a species formerly kept almost exclusively in poorer parts of the world as a work animal, abruptly replaced in most uses by motor vehicles, no longer highly valued for labor, and therefore suddenly more valuable for hides than alive.
Problem of scale
Further, the demand for the gelatinous substance derived from donkey hides, ejiao, comes almost entirely from China, whose population of 1.4 billion people is so large that even consumption of trivial amounts of ejiao by one person in 10,000 can require the slaughter of millions of donkeys per year.
No wild animal species––indeed, no animal product, period––is actually widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, which is based overwhelmingly on floral and herbal compounds.
But tigers, rhinos, elephants, and pangolins have long been so rare that any demand for their body parts, at any price, puts unsustainable pressure on both wild and captive populations.
The limited Chinese market demand for turtles, snakes, civets, and other somewhat more numerous wild animals, trafficked as high-end luxury foods, has depressed wildlife populations throughout Asia and Africa, simply because even a very low rate of consumption is high relative to the total numbers of animals.
Only recently recognized
The effect of ejiao demand on donkey numbers is different because until circa 2015 hardly anyone realized that the common ass could abruptly become scarce enough to encourage the growth of international commerce in donkey hides, speculation in donkey hide futures, and criminal activity centered on obtaining donkey hides by hook or by crook for resale.
The total value of the traditional Chinese medicine market within China, and of the ejiao component of it, are not currently accessible data, but can be estimated from export data. As the major consumers of traditional Chinese medicine outside China are people of Chinese ethnicity and acculturation, living mostly in other Asian nations, there is likely little difference in their consumer preferences.
The traditional Chinese medicine export industry as a whole was estimated at $83 billion as of 2011, and has probably exceeded $100 billion by 2017. The highest estimated dollar volume for ejiao exports is about $8.5 million.
“Gold Rush-style frenzy”
Yet this is enough, says Savanna Myszka, publicity officer for the British-based Donkey Sanctuary, that “Traders and businessmen have responded in a Gold Rush-style frenzy to capitalize on the extraordinary demand for donkey hides and have been scouring the earth in their search for them. As the demand has continued to grow, so has an emerging threat to donkey populations the world over.
“The Donkey Sanctuary is aware of many recent cases,” Myszka told ANIMALS 24-7, “where animals have been rounded up, stolen, slaughtered and skinned to help feed the demand for ejiao. Communities and individuals from Asia to Africa and South America have been affected, losing their main means of an income to donkey poachers and traders.
“Unaffordability of replacement”
“As if the distress of this loss was not enough,” Myszka said, “it is compounded by the unaffordability of a replacement, since the price of a donkey has risen far beyond the means of many impoverished families.”
“The skin of an expensive healthy animal generates the same profit as that of a diseased, poorly kept or weak animal,” Myszka added, so “Traders often see no value in maintaining good welfare conditions.”
Donkeys are simply bunched until they can be conveniently slaughtered and skinned, and if the donkeys die in transit, or starve while awaiting slaughter, this saves work for the slaughtermen.
Under the Skin
Founded in England in 1969 and now operating in 35 nations which cumulatively claim circa 44 million working donkeys, the Donkey Sanctuary on January 29, 2017 published an investigative report, Under The Skin: The emerging trade in donkey skins and its implications for donkey welfare and livelihoods.
Under The Skin documents in 31 pages, including 18 photos and 66 footnotes, the traffic that ANIMALS 24-7 reviewed in a December 23, 2016 feature entitled Losing their asses: China trade deals deplete global donkey population. (The ANIMALS 24-7 coverage is footnote #60.)
Used old & incapacitated
Under The Skin explains that historically the ejiao industry, led by the Dong’e Ejiao company, founded in 1952, made use of the remains of donkeys who were “too old or too incapacitated to continue to work.”
Price controls imposed in 1994 helped to keep ejiao expensive and limit industry growth.
Donkeys were eaten in parts of China, Under The Skin notes, but because the supply of donkey meat was limited, it was “correspondingly expensive.”
No historical long-haul trade
In largely Islamic western China and elsewhere in the Islamic world, donkey meat is “considered ‘haram’ (forbidden),” Under The Skin acknowledges. Therefore, in theory, a long-haul commerce could have developed to supply donkeys from western China to donkey-eaters in the east. Yet such a traffic did not develop: not in live donkeys, and not in frozen carcasses either.
But trade has emerged
“Most notable within the last two years,” Under The Skin explains, “has been the emergence of large-scale global trading in donkey skins, with estimates of a minimum of 1.8 million donkey skins being traded per year. In turn, global demand has been conservatively estimated to be up to four million, with some sources reporting upper limits of demand in China to be 10 million skins per annum.”
“Such high levels of demand,” Under The Skin says, “are undoubtedly fueling global reports of poor donkey welfare, theft and a sudden increase in the purchase price of donkeys.”
Coinciding with the rise in demand for ejiao, Dong’e Ejiao has grown to employ more than 10,000 employees, according to Under The Skin, “reportedly processes in excess of one million skins per year, and is listed on China’s stock exchange.
“Whilst demand within China for ejiao has soared,” Under The Skin reports, “Chinese agricultural authorities have reported that donkey numbers have reduced drastically, from an estimated 11 million in 1990 to an estimated six million in 2014. Although a number of farmers have attempted to capitalize on the increasing demand for donkey products,” by raising donkeys specifically for slaughter, and Dong’e Ejiao itself reputedly maintains a farm of over 10,000 donkeys farmed primarily for their skins, Under The Skin says, “many have struggled to supply adequate numbers due to donkeys’ low fecundity, particularly when they are reared intensively or when technologies such as artificial insemination are used.”
The gap between domestic ejiao production demand for donkeys and the number of donkeys available from within China has been filled in recent years by imports. But now those sources are running thin.
Pakistan banned exports
“Pakistan is a country with an estimated 4.9 million donkeys,” Under The Skin explains. “Until recent times it was an important exporter of donkey skins, exporting 200,000 between 2014 and 2016. However, significant concerns were raised about increased donkey slaughter leading to donkey meat being fraudulently sold as beef for public consumption.”
Therefore, Under The Skin says, Pakistan became “the first country in Asia to ban the export of donkey skins, in order to reduce the impact of donkey meat fraudulently entering the human food chain.”
Donkeys from India
Donkey pelt buyers then looked toward India, P. Naveen of the Times of India News Network reported on February 7, 2017.
In consequence, Naveen wrote, “Donkeys are disappearing faster than tigers in Madhya Pradesh state, going by figures released by the state animal husbandry department,” contributing to a drop of 75% in the donkey population from 1997 to 2012.
Madhya Pradesh state had just under 15,000 donkeys left, as of 2012, and by now undoubtedly has fewer still.
“While the state government blames modernisation and ‘uselessness’” in the modern, mechanized world for the loss of donkeys,” Naveen continued, “the International Organization for Animal Protection has petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Union ministers to declare donkeys an ‘endangered species.’”
Australian feral donkeys
Comparable concern generated by online activists is evident in Australia, but this is based on the false premise that Australia might be rounding up feral donkeys for export. The notoriously bio-xenophobic Australian government might do that if feasible, but it isn’t, says Donkey World Rescue blogger David C. Duncan
“In July 2016,” Duncan recently posted, “Alister Trier, chief executive of the Northwest Territory’s Department of Primary Industry, said the government had been approached by several Chinese companies wanting access to feral donkeys. Trier said the [proposal] “was now in the hands of potential investors and ‘the ball was now in their court.’”
“Not a viable proposition”
But exporting live donkeys would mean “that China would need to have Certified Tier 2 abbatoirs, which it does not have,” Duncan continued. Exporting donkey carcasses, meanwhile, “would mean that Australia would have to upgrade several Tier 1 abbatoirs to Tier 2, and that is not a viable proposition,” since it would cost fifty to 100 million dollars in up-front investment to kill numbers of donkeys too small to supply much of the ejiao demand.
“Dong’e, in Shandong province, was slaughtering a million donkeys per year,” Duncan posted. “This has dropped back to 300,000. Australia only has 55,000 donkeys left,” at most, scattered over 130,000 square kilometers.
While Australians misapprehend that hard-to-find and harder to capture feral donkeys are at risk, Duncan complained, elsewhere “The world’s press and local authorities are often misunderstanding the evidence of illegal donkey-hide operations.”
In Colombia, for instance, mass media recently reported that farmers who lost their donkeys to thieves “do not know who the authors (are) and (what) their reasons are to kill them and take only the hides.”
According to Radio Caracol, “25 donkeys have been found dead and skinless in recent days, between the corregimientos of Patillal and Atánquez.”
Duncan and The Donkey Sanctuary believe these and similar discoveries in Brazil and Mexico indicate that traffickers and speculators have begun looking toward Latin America for ejiao supply.
Brazil, in particular, “would appear to be a significant source of donkey skins, given the pre-existing export channels for cattle and beef and a donkey population of one million,” suggests Under The Skin. “One particularly suspicious consignment of 137 donkeys [in Brazil] was discovered to have travelled over 1,000 kilometers to slaughter, with reports of 14 of these donkeys dying in transit. This raised questions about the destination of the donkeys: unless it is part of the skin trade, such long distance transport is not viable, because donkey meat is not commonly consumed or prized within Brazil. Further information from animal-welfare experts within Brazil, Under The Skin says, citing an anonymous source, “would indicate that, whilst not well known, the export of donkey skins to China is regular and significant.”
5,000 donkey hides in a shack
In South Africa, Govan Whittles and Given Sigauqwe of the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian suggested in January 2017 that “The discovery of more than 5,000 donkey hides in a shack and a metal container in Benoni could blow the lid off the illegal slaughter and trade of the animals’ meat and skin, allegedly by a Chinese syndicate.
“The find marks the single biggest discovery of donkey hides and a major breakthrough in a case against a syndicate suspected of slaughtering the animals and transporting the meat and hides without them being certified disease-free,” Whittles and Sigauqwe wrote.
Just a few days later, Sigauqwe updated, “A site where more than 100 donkeys were illegally slaughtered was discovered on a farm in Olifantshoek, Northern Cape,” according to the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals farm animal protection unit.
“A number of witnesses told of the animals being brutally slaughtered, including being bludgeoned with hammers,” Sigauqwe said.
A week after that, NSPCA spokesperson Grace DeLange e-mailed to ANIMALS 24-7, two South Africans, “Mr. Morena Kimanu Dlomo and Mrs Lati Makatso, were denied bail in the Sani Magistrates Court,” after “35 donkeys were found skinned in a kraal on a plot of land eight kilometres from the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho in the Twin Springs area.
“Evidence indicates that the method of slaughter was horrendous. Indications on the carcasses show a hole behind the head. That is, the donkeys appear to have been ‘immobilized’ with an instrument, then skinned, probably whilst still conscious,” DeLange charged. “Death would have been slow and excruciatingly painful.”
The explosion of misdirected fury toward South Africans of Chinese ancestry that followed the announcement prompted the 114-year-old Chinese Association of Gauteng to issue a statement that, “As a community, we are as outraged as our fellow South Africans. We condemn in the strongest possible terms all individuals involved in the ill-treatment of these donkeys and indeed any other forms of animal cruelty.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese Association advised, “Following legal advice taken to protect the safety and well-being of our Chinese community, criminal charges have been laid against some of the writers” of threats and hate speech on social media.”
In all likelihood, most of the ancestrally Chinese population of South Africa––and globally––had never heard of ejiao before the speculative commerce in this little-known and relatively seldom used traditional medicinal product exploded.
Government promoting the trade
The Northwest Province department of Rural, Environment and Agricultural Development cheerfully announced on February 21, 2017, meanwhile, that “Bokone Bophirima Province will boost its provincial economy by embarking on a donkey production program, which includes establishing of donkey abattoirs, commercial trading of donkey meat and hides.”