Mechanization, illegal slaughtering and a booming demand for donkey skin to produce traditional Chinese remedies are contributing to India's declining donkey population.
India's donkey population declined by more than 61% between 2012 to 2019, according to government livestock census figures. And that trend has continued. The number of donkeys across India now stands at just under 120,000.
Many people fear that that figure is even lower and blame the exponential rate of decline in the donkey population on a lack of government support. In India's northeastern state of Rajasthan, which is home to one-fifth of India's donkeys, the population has plunged by around 72% — from 81,000 to just 23,000.
While the export of live donkeys is illegal, donkey hide and meat are are crossing borders through easily-accessible routes.
Donkey skin trade
Hundreds of thousands of donkeys are slaughtered every year for their skins, according to an investigation by international animal welfare charity Brooke.
The donkey skins are mostly exported to China to fulfill a growing demand for "ejiao" — a gelatin used in traditional Chinese medicine. Ejiao, which is made by boiling the skins, is believed to improve blood circulation and treat conditions like anemia.
"The trade is currently banned in India, along with the slaughter of donkeys for meat, but Brooke's study has found evidence of a dark underbelly, decimating the Indian donkey population," the study said.
Experts pointed out that the Chinese ejiao industry requires around 4.8 million donkey skins annually, while China's domestic donkey herd decreased from 11 million in 1992 to just 2.6 million today, forcing smugglers to source donkey skins outside of China.
"While this is one reason, there are other factors as well such as rapid mechanization, policies regarding breeding and inadequate husbandry conditions which account for the decline," Syed Farah-uz-Zaman, a veterinarian from Brooke's Indian headquarters, told DW.
"Another reason is that there is no real emotional attachment to donkeys among communities but that can change if the right policies are in place," Habibar Rahman of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) told DW.
Smuggling donkey meat
Police in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh seized 400 kg of donkey meat from four different locations in October. Although the trade is illegal, there is rampant smuggling both in India and abroad. Donkey meat is believed to ease back pain and asthma and increase virility in men.
In the past, donkeys were used even by the Indian army as draught and pack animals, especially in hilly and difficult terrains.
Across India's rural hinterland, donkeys have traditionally been used by low-income farmers. Although a less common sight now, mules have also been utilized to transport people and materials used in construction.
"I have noticed that donkeys are not going to be utilized for general purposes such as transportation of goods and people. Its nearing its end," Kalilash Kumar of Asswin Project, a charity working in Haryana, told DW.
Mechanized trolleys are increasingly being used to transport goods over short distances — replacing donkeys and adding to the decline of the animal's rural populations.
"There may be even fewer donkeys left by the next livestock census unless some practical steps are taken by all stakeholders," said Zaman.
Given the rapid decrease in donkey numbers, the government is now considering measures to reverse the decline.
Last month, officials from several organizations — the ILRI, the department of animal husbandry and dairying, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and numerous NGOs — met to discuss the revival of donkey populations.
The objective was to pinpoint potential intervention strategies and identify stakeholders — especially in the six Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar — that have a sizable donkey and mule population.
To save the endangered donkeys, experts have stressed the need to focus on donkey value chains and encourage start-ups that can support the sector. Starting up donkey milk farms in places where their population is still present has also been suggested.
"Donkey milk is nutritious and a liter can range anywhere between Indian Rs7,000 to 10,000 (€79 - €113). It has fewer calories and less fat and contains more vitamin D than other milk," said Rahman.
Donkey milk is considered somewhat of a delicacy since each donkey produces just a couple of liters each day.
"Farmers who depend on donkeys for their livelihood should be protected by promoting non-bovine milk and creating awareness of the health benefits of donkey milk," Rahman added.
It is for this reason researchers are examining whether donkey milk that can be used for pharmaceutical purposes such as supporting immune function.
Other suggestions include developing a cooperative model to promote donkey milk producers and setting up a national donkey production program.