Beasts of burden for 5,000 years, but now out of work
NAIROBI, NAIVASHA, Kenya––Donkeys in Kenya, as in much of the rest of the developing world, are rapidly disappearing, but not all in the same direction. Some are trucked to slaughter; others gallop into the bush.
Tens of thousands of Kenyan donkeys have already been killed in recent years to satisfy booming Chinese demand for ejiao, a gelatin made from boiling down donkey hides, used in traditional tonics and cosmetics.
Donkey “highway to hell”
Tens of thousands of donkeys from neighboring nations also have been rounded up and sold by the truckload to bunchers working the A104 highway corridor, which runs all the way from Mozambique the length of Tanzania, across Kenya and then the length of Uganda to South Sudan.
But thousands of other donkeys, put out of work by motor vehicles farther from the A104, have simply been abandoned as not worth the work of capturing and selling to slaughter, in rugged and often all but roadless habitat much better suiting quadrupeds than humans having to hoof it after them.
Four times as many cars in 15 years
The number of licensed motor vehicles in Kenya has more than quadrupled in less than 15 years, from 711,000 in 2004 to more than 2.8 million by 2016. The number of trucks rose from 64,000 to 164,000––and every one of those new trucks displaced whole trains of donkeys who formerly hauled smaller quantities of the same goods for shorter distances at much slower speed.
Similar transitions are underway from South Africa to Egypt.
The Kenyan transition away from donkey power to mechanized transport has coincided with eight consecutive years of 5% growth in inflation-adjusted gross domestic product.
This has been good news for practically everyone in Kenya except donkeys, especially those who have not escaped to the bush, or cannot, having been penned for delivery to slaughter.
Three facilities kill donkeys: the original Goldox slaughterhouse in Nairobi, a newer Goldox slaughterhouse in Chemogoch, and the Star Brilliant Export Abbatoir slaughterhouse in Naivasha.
Away from the A104, which serves both the Goldox facilities and Star Brilliant, and away from the other main-traveled roads feeding into the A104, unattended donkeys, still habituated to human use and feeding, forlornly wander the verges of one-lane dirt trails.
Feral population growing
Less socialized and probably more ornery and flighty donkeys meander away through thornbushes and acacia to mix, mingle, hybridize with, and live alongside their zebra cousins, usually not far from wildebeests.
Those donkeys who evade bunchers, and the risk of predation by lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas, appear to be forming a feral population in what long ago was habitat for their wild ancestors.
The situation is, as a whole, a humane and environmental crisis, but of somewhat different and much more problematic dimensions than the standard narrative amplified for several years now the global humane community.
The standard narrative, repeatedly voiced from the podium at the 2017 and 2018 Africa Animal Welfare Conferences at the United Nations complex in Nairobi, is that aggressive and unscrupulous slaughter merchants invaded Africa after ejiao demand depleted the Chinese donkey population. Slaughter brokers are now buying and killing the donkeys of poor African nations at an aggressive pace threatening the species with regional extirpation.
Along the way, donkey population depletion is said to be contributing to rural poverty.
Hue-and-cry over the loss of donkeys to slaughter has encouraged 14 African nations plus Pakistan to introduce restrictions on donkey sales and transport. Kenya Veterinary Services director Thomas Dulu announced in October 2017 that his office would not approve any new applications to open donkey slaughterhouses.
Poor families lack means to feed donkeys
All of this, however, has mostly locked the stable doors after donkeys’ hides were shipped out.
Meanwhile, the humane community narrative, vigorously advanced in recent years by the Kenya SPCA, the Donkey Sanctuary, the Brooke Hospital for Animals/East Africa, the National SPCA of South Africa and others, is only half of a much more complex and problematic truth.
Perhaps the most problematic reality of all is that even if donkey slaughter had been outlawed years ago, and all of the displaced former working donkeys had been given to poor families who currently lack transportation, most of those poor families lack the means to feed and water a donkey.
Men now commonly pull carts that were once pulled by donkeys, but mostly for short-haul jobs, such as roadside vending, that do not pay enough to make keeping a donkey viable. Other traditional donkey work, including carrying bricks and water, are now done chiefly by truck.
The Kenyan donkey population reportedly peaked at 1,832,519 in 1999, three times as many as now, “with over half of this population being used for work in transport and tillage operations,” wrote Gilbert Koech for the Nairobi Star in October 2017. “About a third of the donkeys were in poor condition due to human abuse and misuse,” Koech added––and that was before the surge in motor vehicle use knocked the economic bottom out of the donkey industry.
Some poor families who had donkeys have lost their donkeys to theft by slaughter merchants. Nakuru veterinary services director Enos Amuyunzu on World Donkey Day in 2017 told media that more than 870 donkeys had been reported missing from his district, near Naivasha, by May 17 of that year. Another 120 donkeys were reported stolen in and around Narok, along the B3 highway, about an hour by truck from the A104, two hours from Nairobi, three hours from Naivasha.
Bunchers steal from each other
Some of the missing donkeys––or their remains––were reportedly found at Star Brilliant.
Scandalous as that was, though, far more cars have been reported stolen in Kenya per year than donkeys: about 1,335 cars stolen in 2016 alone.
Many and perhaps most of the donkeys reported stolen in recent years have been stolen by slaughter merchants from each other, the donkeys having become easy money by reason of having already been rounded up and brought to the A104 corridor.
Moses Kamau, for example, complained in September 2017 to Macharia Mwangi and George Sayagie of the Daily Nation in Nairobi that he bought 16 donkeys for the equivalent of $120 apiece, to deliver to slaughter in Naivasha the next day, but eight were stolen overnight.
A donkey needs more water than a husband & children
The prices reportedly paid for donkeys by bunchers have risen since 2012 from circa $50 to as much as $200 each––but this is for donkeys already in hand, with papers proving ownership.
Away from the A104, practically anyone who wants a donkey, and can feed one, can have one for the catching.
But the women of rural poor families, for instance, who struggle daily to carry five-or-10-gallon water containers home to their families each morning, mostly do not grab a donkey instead, because the donkey would need as much water as their husbands and children combined––plus fodder and a harness.
Reality seems to be that slaughter merchants jumped into the donkey business, perceiving the growing Chinese demand, to take advantage of what had become an African donkey surplus.
Law changed in 2012
United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization data suggests that the ejiao industry grew initially to exploit a Chinese donkey surplus, comparably following mechanization. As the Chinese donkey population dropped, over about 15 years, from more than 11 million to perhaps as few as three million, ejiao demand continued to grow.
“There are communities like the Turkana of Kenya and others in Tanzania that have traditionally kept donkeys for meat,” wrote Nijiraini Muchira for The East African, of Nairobi, in September 2017. “In Kenya, though, prior to 2012, when the Kenya Meat Control Amendment Act was passed, legalizing the sale of donkey meat, it was sold disguised as beef by unscrupulous butchers.”
Goldox Kenya Ltd. and Star Brilliant jumped into donkey slaughter several years after the 2012 change of law, after the Chinese demand developed.
“Before, there was no market”
“The country’s three abattoirs — all of which have Chinese owners or partners — reported processing just under 100,000 donkeys in two years, according to a government memo,” wrote Rachel Nuwer for the New York Times in January 2018. “Both skin and meat are exported to China, usually through Vietnam or Hong Kong.”
“Before, there was no market for the donkeys. People used to sell their cows, people used to sell their goats to pay their school fees for the children. But now I find that people in the market are selling donkeys more than cows,” Star Brilliant chief executive John Kariuki told BBC News Africa correspondent Alastair Leithead in October 2017.
“We are happy with the Chinese,” Kariuki emphasized, “because before there was nothing coming from donkeys, but so many people are benefitting from the donkey now today.”
“Pariah among the community”
East African writer Nijiraini Muchira found a different perspective.
“Kariuki, now nicknamed Mr. Punda (Kiswahili for donkey), had been exporting hides and skins to China, when donkey meat was legalized,” Muchira wrote. “He seized the opportunity, investing over $2 million in the abattoir. But when he opened the doors of Star Brilliant in September 2016, he became a pariah among the community.”
While demand for working donkeys has dropped in Kenya, leading to the growth of the slaughter industry, killing donkeys is viewed by many Kenyans much as horse slaughter is seen in the U.S.
Besides that, nobody wants to live downwind of a slaughterhouse killing any animal, an issue for Goldox even more than Star Brilliant.
Reported Caroline Chebet for The Standard, of Nairobi, in October 2017, “What was supposed to be the gateway to the scenic beauty of the Rift Valley, with all its lakes and other attractions, is under threat from the stench coming from a Chinese-run donkey slaughterhouse. In Chemogoch village is the main Goldox donkey abattoir, causing serious environmental and health concerns both for man and livestock. According to an official from the company, Silas Chesebe, the firm is yet to locate a dumping site for its waste,” instead “disposing of waste in a field the company had set aside for breeding of donkeys,” while killing 450 donkeys per day.
Another Goldox official, George Ogolla, told Chebet that the remains of thousands of donkeys were “organic manure” for the field.
Crisis more likely to change forms than to disappear
Ahead, even if Kenya were to completely ban donkey slaughter, a political unlikelihood, the current humane crisis is much more likely to change forms than to disappear.
In particular, prohibiting donkey slaughter would almost certainly accelerate the release of former working donkeys to wander along roadsides, at constant risk from traffic, or into the bush to go feral.
Though donkeys are ancestrally native to Kenya, the Kenya they evolved in was a much different place, with more rainfall, more grass, more natural predation, and without competition for resource use from domestic sheep, goats, and cattle.
Feral donkeys unlikely to be tolerated in numbers
Feral donkeys can still survive in remote parts of rural Kenya, and in absence of contraception to check population growth, could even eventually multiply into herds rivaling those of zebra and wildebeest, but farmers and wildlife conservationists are unlikely to tolerate their presence.
Pointed out Nijiraini Muchira in her East African coverage, “Because of the selective nature of their grazing, donkeys are known to change the composition of plant species in an area and many people do not want to keep large numbers. Donkeys prefer certain plant species, and their heavy grazing on these species allows other plants that are less palatable to proliferate. Eventually, large areas can become virtual monocultures, ultimately changing the ecosystem.”
Even with continued donkey slaughter absorbing most of the donkey surplus, Kenya appears likely to develop a wild equine issue comparable those of the U.S. & Australia, with livestock grazers and conservationists hellbent on exterminating feral donkeys by hook or by crook, at any cost in cruelty.