Africa’s donkeys are stolen and slaughtered for Chinese medicine

How did a popular period drama on Chinese television contribute to the theft and brutal slaughter of millions of donkeys in Africa?

It all started when fans of the show “Empresss in the Palace” saw the aristocratic characters using a traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao, which is made from donkey skin, Simon Pope, who works for VOA, told VOA. UK charity The Donkey Sanctuary.

“It was all happening at the (Chinese) imperial court and at a certain time of the day the ladies of the court were all saying, ‘Let’s have some ejiao,'” Pope said. Ejiao, also called donkey glue, is used as medicine or as a health and beauty tonic in China.

“Thanks to this program, the demand for ejiao literally exploded,” he said of the show that first aired in 2011. “The problem was that China just didn’t have enough donkeys to be able to meet the demand.”

The Chinese have begun to seek out donkeys overseas, particularly in Africa where they are used as pack animals by rural communities from Mali to Zimbabwe to Tanzania. When locals were unwilling to sell, the thefts began, with distressed farmers finding their prized donkeys skinned and left to rot in the veld.

China needs about 5 million donkeys a year to produce and meet the demand for ejiao, and about 2 million of them come from China’s own animal population. Of the remaining 3 million or more from overseas, the Donkey Sanctuary estimates that between 25% and 35% are stolen.

Today, after years of trade, populations are declining and some African countries are fighting back. Last month, Tanzania banned the slaughter of donkeys for the skin trade, saying the country’s donkey population was at risk of extinction. Other African countries, including Nigeria, have also banned the slaughter of donkeys or the export of the animal.

“I think the message going to China, from Africa in particular, is that our donkeys are too valuable an asset to have them skinned and shipped to China to be made into medicine. Our donkeys are not for sale,” Pope said. However, he noted that due to China’s economic weight in the mainland and massive investment in infrastructure, other countries are reluctant to push back trade.

South Africa allows the slaughter of donkeys but only in two approved slaughterhouses and with a quota of 12,000 per year. Authorities here have cracked down on the illegal trade in recent years, so criminal syndicates have gone underground, especially since COVID, said Grace de Lange, an inspector with the National Societies Council for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (NSPCA) in South Africa.

Today, South African donkeys are smuggled into Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa.

“We don’t know exactly what the link is and how they’re getting it out – maybe easier from Lesotho,” she told VOA.

“We have had meetings with (the) government of Lesotho and they are also investigating. … It’s going to the Chinese market,” she said, adding that authorities have also intercepted skins in warehouses and at the airport.

While local petty criminals have been prosecuted after being caught transporting the animals, the Chinese who run the big syndicates are generally harder to reach, de Lange says.

Marosi Molomo, Director of Livestock Services at the Lesotho Ministry of Agriculture, responded to VOA’s questions about the trade in donkeys moving into Lesotho via text message saying, “It is not possible to give an answer without evidence”.

Requests for comment from Chinese embassies and consulates in Lesotho and South Africa went unanswered.

De Lange said the animals are often slaughtered in a particularly cruel way. They are stunned with hammers or have their throats slit but are sometimes still alive when flayed.

“They had in fact been slaughtered in the most gruesome way,” she said.

Francis Nkosi, who works on a farm outside Johannesburg and looks after some of the donkeys rescued from the skin trade, explained why the animal is so vital in rural areas of Africa.

“Donkeys in our culture are like transportation. They help us,” he said as he handed fresh hay to Oscar and Presley, two of his charges who were rescued – in terrible condition – by the NSPCA last year on their way to the slaughter across the border in Lesotho.

“If people sometimes get sick, we don’t have a car. We don’t have transportation. You can use the donkeys to transport some people to the hospital,” he added.

De Lange said she has seen that “the number of donkeys is dwindling” in the rural communities where she works and, for Pope, one of the main concerns is how the loss of their donkeys has socio-economic effects. economical for many.

In some countries, “the children had been taken out of school and they had to do the work that the donkey had to do before,” Pope said.

While some argue that Africa should set up donkey farms and benefit financially, Pope points out that China has tried mass breeding of the animals and has been largely unsuccessful. Unlike other farm animals, donkeys can only produce one foal per year.

Ejiao has been used as medicine for two millennia, and in modern China it is available in various edible forms to aid circulation and relieve pain.

“Demand for donkey glue in China has affected communities halfway around the world,” according to an article about the product in China’s state-run publication. China Daily.

“The issue is sensitive, simply because some of these countries depend on the donkey as a pack animal in agriculture and transportation,” he said. “But it’s also the reality of a tightening global web of supply and demand, and the awesome power of being one of the largest consumer markets on Earth.”

The donkey skin trade has also become a conduit for other criminal activity, according to an investigation by the Donkey Sanctuary and researchers from the University of Oxford published in May. The report found that donkey skins were readily available for purchase online, and websites selling the product also often offered endangered wildlife and even illicit drugs for sale.

There is an “extensive online network of organized criminals offering donkey skins for sale, often alongside other illegal wildlife products including rhino horns, pangolin scales, donkey ivory, etc. ‘elephant and tiger skins,’ the Donkey Sanctuary said.