In many rural parts of East Africa, the donkey is man’s best friend. So handy is it that in the semi-arid lowlands of eastern Kenya, when a mare gets pregnant, prospective buyers flock to the owner’s home with expressions of interest for the foal, forking out up to $50 as down payment.
If the foal is female, the eventual price is higher, due to its potential for reproduction.
Farmers use donkeys to carry heavy loads such as farm produce and building materials like bricks; to plough the farms; and to fetch water from wells as far as seven kilometres away.
In rice-growing schemes, donkeys have been found to be used more to help ferry seedlings, fertilisers and other farm inputs to the fields.
After the harvest, the produce is transported to the mills and markets on donkey cart. With the proceeds from the sales, the donkeys are used to carry home foodstuff and business goods for village shops.
According to the Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (Kendat), a non-governmental organisation that promotes the welfare of donkeys, the animals are mostly used by women and youth, and account for over 90 per cent farm work, including support for other livestock.
In many areas in the region, the animal creates direct employment for the youth, some of whom are employed to drive them, while others hire them for use in income-generating activities.
Among the pastoralists, donkeys are used as pack animals, carrying huge loads — including makeshift houses for the nomadic communities.
And now, with rising shortages of water in urban and peri-urban areas, donkeys have moved into towns to supply the commodity on cart.
Still, there are communities like the Turkana of Kenya and others in Tanzania that have traditionally kept donkeys for meat.
Sale of donkey meat
In Kenya, though, prior to 2012, when the Kenya Meat Control Amendment Act was passed legalising the sale of donkey meat, it was sold disguised as beef by unscrupulous butchers.
So there was both relief and trepidation when the law came into force: Relief because it sets out inspection procedures, reducing the risk of eating bad meat; trepidation because some people still consider the donkey “unclean.”
The law paved the way for investors to establish abattoirs for donkey meat, with two coming up in Baringo and Naivasha in the Central Rift.
Goldox Kenya Ltd built a $3 million abattoir at Chemogoch in Baringo while Star Brilliant established another in Naivasha worth $2 million to process donkey meat for export.
And that is how the story of the donkey changed from that of a beast of burden to a cash cow.
Enter the Chinese and their peculiar taste for the donkey, and the plot thickens. Donkey meat and products are believed to have medicinal value, treating conditions such as insomnia and clogged blood vessels, and even cancer.
The demand for donkey meat and products in China has, all of a sudden, outstripped the supply, with China itself decimating half of its donkey population.
The Chinese have turned to Africa for supply, and so the two slaughterhouses in Kenya have come in handy.
In East Africa, the population of donkeys has been on the decline, with both Uganda and Tanzania having fewer than 1.4 million donkeys, according to Brooke East Africa estimates. Government estimates place the population below one million.
In Kenya, the population of donkeys was estimated at 1.8 million in the last census of 2009, but it has been on a steep decline since the opening of the abattoirs, which slaughter about 250 donkeys per day. This has also been blamed for the spate of theft of the animals.
“Poor women who have been benefiting from the donkeys are suffering because of high rates of theft,” said Samuel Theuri, advocacy officer at Brooke East Africa, a firm that advocates the welfare of animals.
He said that about 1,000 donkeys were stolen across Kenya between December 2016 and April 2017.
Meanwhile, Mali, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso and Tanzania have banned export of donkey meat and products, with Dar expressing fears that the poaching of donkeys has also given way to poaching of wildlife.
China now targets Kenya and South Africa as potential suppliers of the commodity after Niger and Burkina Faso, who were its main suppliers, banned exports, over indiscriminate slaughter of donkeys which, in effect, hurt transport, especially in remote regions.
Last year, Egypt seized the opportunity to increase exports of donkey meat to China after the two countries signed an export deal. In Egypt, the price of donkeys has risen from $23 to $230, according to the lobby Donkey Sanctuary.
The price of a donkey in Kenya has quadrupled in the past three years from around $50 to $200, putting pressure on farmers to deliver orders to the abattoirs, as there are no specific donkey farms, and they do not reproduce fast. The gestation period for donkeys is 11-14 months.
Because of the selective nature of their grazing, donkeys are known to change the composition of plant species in an area and many people do not want to keep large numbers. They prefer certain plant species, and their heavy grazing on these species allows other plants that are less palatable to proliferate.
Eventually, large areas can become virtual monocultures, ultimately changing the ecosystem.
The Baringo abattoir processes about 100 donkeys a day whereas the Naivasha one targets 150 donkeys a day. And they are basically operating below target as the Chinese appetite for donkey products — 19 in all, excluding skins and hides — grows.
Two lobbies promoting the welfare of donkeys, Donkey Sanctuary and Brooke East African have raised the alarm over theft and brutal slaughter of the animals for their skin.
And now the Chinese appetite is getting healthier. Some want the meat; some want the skin and some want the penis, which is believed to boost men’s virility and fertility. It is also supposed to make workers indefatigable.
“The penis is quite popular,” said Francis Mwara, a health officer at Star Brilliant abattoir, “because the Chinese believe it boosts sex drive and fertility.”
Observers say that the scrapping of the one-child policy in China in 2015, allowing couples to have two children after more than three decades, has sent the country into a frenzy. The abolishing of the policy came with the Chinese foray into Africa in search of donkeys.
Because of this appetite, the donkey is a species at the risk of being wiped out, even as it fuels conflicts between communities and has animal rights groups up in arms.
“The rate at which we are slaughtering donkeys for export yet we don’t have enough of these animals is alarming,” said Mr Samuel Theuri.
Donkey hides, when boiled, produce gelatine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of a Chinese traditional medicine called ejiao.
Ejiao is popular among the Chinese middle class and low cadres for its “abilities to cure several blood-related ailments, maintain beauty and prolong life.”
This traditional medicine is ideal in helping blood circulation and curing headaches, insomnia, dizziness, bleeding and dry coughs besides having anti-ageing properties.
It is estimated that China produces about 5,000 tonnes of ejiao each year, requiring four million tonnes of donkey hides.
According to a report of a global investigation by Britain’s Daily Mail, every week, thousands of donkey hides arrive in Dong’e in northern China — the epicentre of the multibillion-dollar industry built on vanity and superstition — from all over the world.
The boss of one factory is quoted as saying that he sold $190 million worth of ejiao products last year.
“Our only concern is that one day soon, there won’t be any more donkeys left to kill,” he said.
East African governments have the same fears, with Tanzania establishing a link between donkey poaching and wildlife poaching. Farmers say poachers poison the animals before they skin them.
“We believe criminals killed these animals by injecting them with a drug,” said Johnson Lyimo, director of the Meru Animal Welfare Organisation in Arusha.
“But we don’t know the chemical they are injecting. It must be very dangerous because no hyena, no kind of bird — not even an insect — is feeding on the meat they left behind.”
And in South Africa, Nadia Saunderson, outreach officer for the Highveld Horse Care Unit near Johannesburg, said demand in China had triggered a huge explosion in illegal slaughter.
“In one incident in the Free State, we were tipped off by a registered abattoir,” Saunderson said. “Our inspectors went to a location out in the bush and rescued 56 emaciated donkeys. They were in the process being cruelly slaughtered. Those responsible are unquestionably serving the Chinese medicine business. They are interested only in the skins.”
Ms Saunderson compared the trade with the poaching of rhino horns and abalone, a protected sea snail once prolific in South African waters.
“We believe donkey skins may even be smuggled out of the country in the same consignments as abalone,” she said.
“It is a massive business. The slaughter of donkeys is having the same effect on their population in rural African communities as the poaching of rhino horn on rhinos.”
According to the Daily Mail report, there are least 10,000 workers in the Dong’e factories, where skins are boiled and liquefied to make health snacks, powders and face creams that Chinese people believe are the key to long life and lasting beauty. There is no medical evidence to support this belief.
The investigation found that donkeys no older than three were being culled in their millions in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East.
Mike Baker, chief executive of the Donkey Sanctuary, which has been monitoring the situation, said: “Suddenly we’re seeing an incredible demand. In Africa alone, the numbers could run into millions.”
The value of a donkey in some countries has rocketed from $60 a decade ago to $340 today as Chinese customers pay up to $270 a month for ejiao.
And now, the Shandong Dong’e Ejiao, the plant that processes a million donkey hides a year, is negotiating to breed and kill donkeys in Australia. It is said to have set up a farm on the outskirts of Dong’e with 10,000 animals.
A traditional medicine for nearly 2,000 years, ejiao was once made exclusively for Imperial China’s royal families and, later, Chairman Mao and the Communist elite.
Today, China’s burgeoning middle classes are clamouring for it, which is officially promoted under President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic policy to develop the country’s traditional medicine market.
Ejiao sales went into overdrive in China following a national television campaign promoting it in 2010.
The mythology surrounding it dictates that the donkey skins can only be boiled during the winter months, with ejiao made during the three-day Chinese Winter Solstice the most valued with a 250g slab made then fetching over $3,000.
Kenya’s Star Brilliant exports some 2,000 pieces of skin to China per month and now wants to increase its capacity to kill 200 donkeys a day.
It also exports some 27 tonnes of various donkey meat products weekly, which are certified by a resident veterinary officer and representatives of the importing companies.
The proprietor John Kariuki, now nicknamed Mr Punda (Kiswahili for donkey), had been exporting hides and skins to China, when donkey meat was legalised. He seized the opportunity, investing over $2 million in the abattoir.
But when he opened the doors of Star Brilliant in September 2016, he became a pariah among the community.
Some Christians believe that the donkey is among the animals that should not be eaten, based on interpretations of the Bible. But it is not directly mentioned among animals considered “unclean.”
“When I opened the slaughterhouse, I was confronted with condemnation from Kenyans who thought I was going to feed them with donkey meat,” Mr Kariuki told The EastAfrican.
He added that despite getting all the statutory approvals, including licences from the Kenya Veterinary Board, the National Environment Management Authority and the county government, the common reaction from the community was that of disapproval.
Coming at a time when cases of donkey theft were at an all-time high, with carcasses being discovered in bushes and people suspecting the meat had found its way to their dinner tables, many were disgusted by the idea of legalising donkey meat.
While the slaughterhouses compete for donkey supply, at Star Brilliant, supply of the animals is well documented to contain the rising cases of donkey theft.
Every donkey supplied to the slaughterhouse must be accompanied by four crucial documents: A stock trader’s licence, a movement permit, no-objection licence and a local purchasing order.
In some instances, particularly when individuals want to dispose of their animals, the abattoir demands a letter from the local chief to ascertain the donkey actually belongs to the seller.
Although animal welfare organisations have criticised the slaughter methods used, saying they are extremely distressing for the donkeys, the proprietors are making efforts to ensure less trauma to the animals.
— Additional information from multiple Internet sources.