In Chinese television commercials, herds of donkeys roam happily across idyllic green pastures, brushed and groomed by an army of attendants so that their hides can be transformed into the health food of emperors.
The commercials are just part of a vast marketing campaign for donkey-skin products, fuelling an extraordinary growth in consumption. Sales in China have surged from US$3.2-billion in 2013 to about US$7.8-billion in 2020, with urban consumers convinced that donkey products will slow the aging process, enhance beauty, boost the libido and cure everything from anemia to insomnia and pregnancy issues.
The food known as ejiao – a collagen extracted from donkey hides – sells for about US$780 per kilogram in China today, compared to just US$30 two decades ago. Advertised as the healthy creation of a benign industry, it is mixed with herbs and other ingredients to produce a highly profitable range of cakes, tablets, bars and liquids. But the reality of the donkey trade is much more disturbing than its airbrushed image. In many African villages, its impact on the world’s poorest people has been catastrophic.
Two new reports by African-based research organizations have documented the extent of the destruction. Donkeys are crucial for transportation in Africa, but China’s insatiable demand is stripping villages of their donkeys, jeopardizing their economic survival and sometimes forcing girls to abandon school to labour at home. Many families have woken up to find their donkeys gone, stolen by poachers to be trafficked to China.
“The consequences for the rural poor in Africa – women and girls in particular – are heartbreaking and unnecessary,” said a report by economist Lauren Johnston, published by the South African Institute of International Affairs.
An estimated 158 million Africans depend on donkeys to carry water, food and farm goods. The animals ease their household burden, boost their productivity and free their children to go to school. One study in Kenya found that the loss of a donkey is associated with a higher risk of poverty.
Three decades ago, when its ejiao consumption was far smaller, China had the world’s largest donkey population. But as its demand has soared more than tenfold, the country has been forced to import hides on a massive scale. China consumes about five million donkey skins annually – depleting about 10 per cent of the entire global population of donkeys every year. Of these, about three million are imported, mostly from Africa, now home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s donkeys.
An estimated 25 to 35 per cent of the imported donkeys have been stolen and trafficked illegally. The global trade to supply China is largely unregulated and has become “an enabler of organized criminality,” Prof. Johnston said in her report.
The drastic rise in Chinese demand has decimated the population in some African countries. Botswana, for example, has lost about half of its donkey population since 2016. Because donkeys are slow to reproduce, the supply often fails to keep up with demand. “Donkeys can’t breed like rabbits,” Prof. Johnston told a recent briefing. “They’re like the panda – they’re incredibly hard to breed in large numbers.”
A separate report, published last month by the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, found that the Chinese demand has triggered a sharp rise in donkey-hide prices, which in turn has fuelled the rise of trafficking by transnational criminal networks. More than a dozen African countries have banned or restricted the trade or shut down donkey abattoirs, but traffickers have evaded the ban.
Ghana has emerged as a key hub for the donkey trade in West Africa, the report said, adding that an estimated 100,000 donkeys are slaughtered in the country every year to supply hides to China.
“Donkeys are killed cruelly, often with a hammer or a dagger,” the report said. “Social media platforms provide traders with anonymity and secure communication channels that connect buyers with traffickers.”
In December, worried delegates at a Pan-African donkey conference in Tanzania said African villages were suffering too much, with women and girls facing the heaviest burden when donkeys were stolen. They called for a 15-year moratorium on the trade in Africa to allow the population to rebuild and better regulations to be drafted.
“At the conference, people were saying, ‘Wow, our wives are becoming the donkey again,’” Prof. Johnston said.
China often defends its consumption practices by describing them as traditional medicine with a history of up to 3,000 years. But in the case of donkeys, Africa’s history is much older. Scientists have confirmed that donkeys were first domesticated in East Africa about 7,000 years ago. Their use spread to Sudan and Egypt and then to Asia and Europe, helping to create the early era of global trade.
Traditionally, ejiao in China was an elite product, associated with emperors and ancient medical texts. But in recent years it has been marketed successfully to China’s middle class. Advertising has been embedded in popular Chinese television dramas set in the imperial era, so that audiences would see an emperor’s wife, for example, being advised to consume ejiao for her health.
In reality, there is nothing traditional about mass-market donkey-skin consumption. “This has been blown out of proportion by the traders,” said Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston and the China Policy Specialist at Humane Society International.
“Businesses want to make money, so they come up with all these claims, mostly for women, that it’s good for nursing your baby or when you’re pregnant,” Dr. Li told The Globe and Mail.
“It’s a supply-driven trade. We should avoid blaming Chinese cultural practices, because there’s nothing cultural about it.”
The Donkey Sanctuary, a British-based charity, says the global trade in donkeys is “chaotic” and “shockingly cruel.” Donkeys are often walked for days without access to adequate food and water. “They are transported and held with scant regard for their suffering,” it said in a report last November.
With millions of hides transported in an unregulated and covert business after an often unhygienic slaughtering process, the trade also creates “a high risk for the transmission of infectious diseases across the globe,” the report warned.
When the charity commissioned an independent lab to test 108 samples of China-bound donkey skins from a Kenyan slaughterhouse, the tests detected African horse sickness and other infectious agents. “These positive test results confirm the risks of global spread of infection,” the report said.