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Every year around 5 million donkeys are slaughtered to meet the demand for eijao, a traditional gelatin-based medicine. If this trend continues, more than half of the world’s donkeys could be killed in the next five years.
Photo credit: Anthony Rae.
The pressure that traditional Chinese medicine puts on wild animals is well known. Over the years, the demand for traditional Chinese medicine has increased significantly, putting iconic species like tigers in danger of extinction. But it’s not just wild or exotic animals – Chinese medicine is also approaching and threatening some animals that are very familiar to us: donkeys.
The donkey population in Brazil has decreased by 28% since 2007 for no apparent domestic reason. In other large population countries, such as Botswana and Kyrgyzstan, the population declines even more, by 37% and 53% respectively. There is no domestic reason for this. Instead, the reason lies in China, where donkey populations have declined by as much as 76% since 1992.
Unable to meet its donkey demand, China has turned to other countries.
A type of gelatin is made from the donkey skin – a key ingredient in Eijao. Eijao has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years as it is said to have healing properties for conditions such as anemia and poor circulation. The scientific evidence for these claims is limited at best.
Eijao consumption has increased significantly as more and more people in China can and still want to afford it. China is unable to supply enough donkeys and is “outsourcing” them from underdeveloped areas in South America, Africa and Central Asia. According to a recent report from the Donkey Sanctuary, this practice is decimating donkey populations around the world, creating the biggest donkey crisis of all time.
The practice is also brutal. Donkeys (including pregnant mares and foals) are removed (or reportedly stolen) from communities that rely on the animals for a living. The donkeys are often transported on long and cruel journeys with no access to food or water. Broken limbs are a common sight on these trips, and around 20% of animals never make it to their destination.
However, those who do so face even more suffering. Pulled by their ears and tails, often with their limbs severed, the donkeys are taken to be slaughtered. Your skin is removed and gelatin is made from the skin. For donkeys, which are often kept under inhumane conditions at first, this is an unworthy and undeserved end.
This problem is doubled by the fact that donkeys are slow to reproduce. A donkey mare has had a foal for over a year and her fertility rate is initially low in agricultural areas.
The booming donkey skin trade has made the situation much worse and increased the price of donkeys. In Kenya, the price has doubled in three years ($ 107 to $ 214 between 2016 and 19). It’s a lot of money for a country where wages can be as low as $ 220, and owners struggle to keep their donkeys or buy new ones.
This is a tragedy for the donkeys and the 500 million people who rely on them – often in the poorest areas of the world. Some countries are trying to take action: 18 countries have taken legislative action against the donkey skin industry. Even if donkey slaughter is prohibited, the law is difficult to enforce and the practice simply continues, or donkeys are shipped overseas for slaughter. Studies have found that donkey trafficking is threatening people’s livelihoods and causing a potential health crisis. “The need for an immediate ban on the donkey skin trade in Kenya became clear,” a report said.
The UK’s Chinese Herbal Medicine Register (RCHM) said it strongly condemned the practice, deemed it unethical and unnecessary in modern Chinese medicine. In the UK, it is illegal for herbal practitioners to prescribe animal products. It advocates ethical, plant-based alternatives or the use of beef, pork or chicken gelatin as a dietary supplement.
Photo credit: Tim Mossholder.
It is unclear what impact the pandemic had on the donkey trade. China has come under heavy pressure to ban or at least curb its wildlife trade, which is one of the plausible causes of the ongoing pandemic. China has put a ban on the wildlife trade, but it’s not yet clear how heavily the ban will be enforced – or whether donkeys will fall under the ban. Technically, donkeys are not considered “wild animals”.
Even so, the pandemic appears to have influenced public opinion in China against the wildlife trade, but the demand for traditional medicine in China continues to grow at an accelerated rate of around 5% per year. As long as demand continues to grow and humane practices are not enforced, things will get worse before they get better.
The Donkey Sanctuary does not ignore the traditional importance of the donkey skin ingredient in Chinese cultural heritage. They urge the Eijao industry to accelerate their efforts and find sustainable alternatives like artificially grown donkey collagen. For the time being, the donkey crisis is worse than ever.