Millions of donkeys in many African countries have been stolen and brutally slaughtered for traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao, made from donkey skin. The medicine, also known as donkey glue, has been used for the past two thousand years and is now sold in China in a variety of culinary forms that are meant to promote blood flow, relieve pains and for beauty purposes.
According to Simon Pope, a representative of the Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K charity, the slaughter of donkeys began when viewers of the popular Chinese show, "Empresses in the Palace," observed the use of ejiao by the aristocratic characters. Since the drama's initial broadcast in 2011, the demand for ejiao has practically skyrocketed. The problem, though, is that China does not have enough donkeys to meet the demand.
The Chinese began to seek donkeys abroad, particularly in Africa, where rural tribes from Mali to Zimbabwe employ them as animals of burden. When the locals refused to sell, thefts began, and distraught farmers discovered their priceless donkeys were being skinned and left to rot on the fields.
To manufacture and supply the demand for ejiao, China needs roughly 5 million donkeys annually; about 2 million of these originate from the country's own population. The Donkey Sanctuary calculates that between 25% and 35% of the 3 million or more imported donkeys are stolen in Africa and other parts of the world.
After years of trade, donkey populations are now declining, and some African nations are banning donkey slaughter. Tanzania last month outlawed the killing of donkeys for their skins, claiming that the species was in danger of going extinct. Nigeria and other African nations have similarly outlawed the exportation or slaughter of donkeys.
These prohibitions are a message to China, in particular, that Africa’s donkeys are too important. Most rural African farmers depend on donkeys as a working animal for both transportation and agriculture. However, other countries are reluctant to oppose the trade because of China's economic influence on the continent and significant infrastructural investment.
South Africa permits the slaughter of donkeys with a quota of 12,000 per year, but only at two authorized slaughterhouses. According to Grace de Lange, an inspector with the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) in South Africa, criminal syndicates have vanished as a result of authorities' recent crackdowns on unlawful donkey trafficking.
In rural Africa, donkeys are crucial. Most African societies view donkeys as a form of transportation. However, the number of donkeys in rural areas is declining, and many people are concerned about the economic consequences of losing their donkeys.
China has tried mass farming of the animals and has largely failed. Some have argued that Africa should establish donkey farms and earn money that way. However, unlike other agricultural animals, donkeys are unable to have more than one foal per year.
According to a study released in May, conducted by the Donkey Sanctuary and researchers at the University of Oxford, the donkey skin trade has also evolved into a conduit for other criminal activity. The report states that donkey skins are readily available online, and websites that sell them frequently also market illegal narcotics and endangered wildlife products like rhino horns, pangolin scales, elephant ivory, and tiger hides.