Donkey-hide gelatin is considered a 'miracle' elixir in China's growing middle class. But to meet demand, thousands of donkeys are being stolen and slaughtered in Africa.
Akasoma James lives in Doba, a small city in northern Ghana. Like many other locals, he owns several donkeys. The animals are vital for him to earn a living: they pull the plow in his fields and, being much cheaper than any vehicle, can be used a means of transport.
But for some time now, James has feared for the safety of his animals. In Ghana and many other African countries, the demand for donkeys has exploded in recent years — and rising prices have also led to an increase in thefts. "They have often attempted [to steal] my donkeys. Even in the house, in the yard. One time they came [at] midnight and they took them all away," James told DW.
The reason for the sudden demand, however, has nothing to do with the market in Africa, but in China. There, a traditional remedy has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Ejiao — or donkey-hide gelatin — has been hailed as a 'miracle' elixir which its manufacturers claim can help with signs of aging, infertility and even impotence. The main ingredient — gelatin — is obtained by boiling donkey skin.
High demand from the middle class
China's domestic donkey population no longer meets the demand of the Chinese middle class — partly because mass donkey breeding is very difficult. So it comes as no surprise that many African countries, with large donkey populations and strong economic ties with China, have become one of the main sources of donkey-hide gelatin for ejiao manufacturers.
At first, many donkey owners in Africa benefited from the demand, says Simon Pope from the British animal welfare organization, The Donkey Sanctuary. "So what we've been talking about is people, who have then sold — willingly in some cases — their spare donkeys, because they can afford to do so and also because the prices have gone up astronomically," he says, "So there's quite a lot of financial incentive to sell those spare animals."
But because most people do not want to sell any more of their stock, cases of theft and poaching have increased significantly, leaving many deprived of their livelihoods. "[People] were waking up in the morning, finding that their donkeys had been stolen and slaughtered and skinned," Pope told DW.
Different ways of dealing with the crisis
Every African country affected by the crisis has reacted differently. In Tanzania for example, the slaughter and export of donkeys have been banned. The country's Minister of Agriculture backed the decision in May 2017, saying the government wants to prevent the animals from going extinct.
According to investigations by The Donkey Sanctuary, this hardline approach has worked well so far; "In Tanzania, once the trade had been banned, prices returned to a much more affordable range," says Pope, "So that meant that farmers and other communities and individuals could actually afford them, and it also means that thefts also reduced considerably."
In neighboring Kenya, however, the government has opted for a different approach. There, donkeys can be slaughtered for export.
There are currently three slaughterhouses operating in the country, with media reports indicating around 500 donkeys are processed every day. Although this decision has prompted an outcry from some, others believe that the jobs and revenue generated from export are more important for Kenya's economy.
The smuggling problem
However, as seen recently in Ethiopia, protests against unpopular decisions like this can bring about a change of government. Only weeks after the country opened a Chinese-run slaughterhouse in the spring of 2017, authorities were forced to close it due to public anger. But Ethiopia's approximately 7.4 million donkeys are far from safe. Pope says that Kenya's decision to continue operating slaughterhouses undermines the ban in Ethiopia and neighboring countries.
"Donkeys are actually being smuggled across the borders from those countries into Kenya, and that's something that even the operators of the slaughterhouses say now," he told DW, "They're sourcing their donkeys from a very wide range of other countries, simply because donkeys are becoming scarce."
Appealing to authorities in China and Africa
Meanwhile, in Ghana, donkey owners like James continue to struggle. Although the government responded in January 2017 and banned the trade of donkey skins, animal rights activists say the ban is being enforced poorly. "As usual, Ghanaians are always ready to pride themselves that they are the first to do this," says Amasaba Aluizah, a coordinator at the Ghana Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (GSPCA). "But what about implementation? The issue is that when it comes to the laws, we are not implementing [them]."
Pope is urgently appealing to authorities in China and Africa to protect donkeys before it is too late: "There's a very real risk in some countries in Africa, over the next four or five years, if the trade continues as it has, that the donkey population will not exist anymore."
African donkeys may be soon saved by investment in stronger breeding programs in China, with leading donkey gelatin producer, Dong'e E'jiao, planning to research new breeding methods. By 2020 the company hopes to raise its own donkeys to meet its production targets. But for many donkeys and their owners in Africa, it may already be too late.