Some 5 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to satisfy the demand of eijao, a gelatin-based traditional medicine. If this trend keeps up, more than half of the world’s donkeys could be killed over the next five years.
The pressure that traditional Chinese medicine puts on wild animals is well known. Over the years, the growth in demand for traditional Chinese medicine has grown substantially, putting emblematic species such as tigers at risk of extinction. It’s not just wild or exotic animals, though — Chinese medicine is also hitting closer to home, threatening some animals which are very familiar to us: donkeys.
The donkey population in Brazil has declined by 28% since 2007, for no apparent domestic reason. In other countries with large populations, such as Botswana and Kyrgystan, populations have dropped even more, by 37% and 53% respectively. There’s no domestic reason for this. Instead, the reason can be found in China, where donkey populations have dropped by as much as 76% since 1992.
Unable to satisfy its demand for donkeys, China has turned to other countries .
The donkey hide is used to make a type of gelatin — a key ingredient of eijao. Eijao has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, due to its alleged healing properties against conditions like anaemia and poor blood circulation. The scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited, at best.
Consumption of eijao has increased significantly as more and more of China’s population can afford it and still desires it. China is incapable of supplying sufficient donkeys, so it is ‘outsourcing’ them from underdeveloped areas in South America, Africa, and central Asia. According to a recent report by the Donkey sanctuary, this practice is decimating donkey populations all around the world, essentialy creating the biggest ever donkey crisis.
The practice is also brutal. Donkeys (including pregnant mares and foals) are taken (or, according to some reports, stolen) from communities which rely on the animals for their livelihoods. The donkeys are often transported on long and cruel journeys, without access to food or water. Broken limbs are a common sight on these journeys, and around 20% of the animals never make it to the destination.
Those who do, however, are subjected to even more suffering. Dragged by their ears and tails, often with severed limbs, the donkeys are taken to be slaughtered. Their skin is removed and the hide is used to make gelatin. For donkeys, which are often kept in inhumane conditions to start with, it’s an unworthy and undeserved end.
This issue is doubled by the fact that donkeys are very slow to reproduce. A donkey mare carries a foal for over a year and, in farming areas, their fertility rate is low to begin with.
The booming donkey skin trade has made things much worse, and driven up the price of donkeys. In Kenya, the price has doubled over 3 years ($107 to $214 between 2016-19). For a country in which wages can be as low as $220, it’s a lot of money, and owners are struggling to be able to keep their donkeys or purchase new ones.
This is a tragedy for the donkeys, as well as the 500 million people who rely on them — often in the most impoverished areas of the world. Some countries are trying to take action against this: 18 countries have taken legislative action against the donkey hide industry. However, even where donkey slaughter is banned, the law is difficult to enforce and the practice simply continues, or the donkeys are shipped abroad for slaughter. Studies have noted that donkey trade is threatening people’s livelihoods as well as causing a potential health crisis. “The need for an immediate ban on the donkey skin trade in Kenya became explicit,” one report notes.
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) in the UK said it strongly condemned the practice and believed it was 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 food supplement instead.
It’s unclear what effect the pandemic has had on donkey trade. China came under intense pressure to ban or at least curb its wildlife trade, which is one of the plausible causes of the ongoing pandemic. China has issued a ban on wildlife trade, but it’s not yet clear how strongly the ban is enforced — or whether donkeys fall under the ban. Technically speaking, donkeys aren’t regarded as ‘wildlife’.
Still, the pandemic seems to have swayed public opinion in China against wildlife trade, but the demand for traditional medicine continues to grow in China, at an accelerated rate of about 5% per year. As long as demand continues to grow and humane practices aren’t enforced, things will get worse before they get better.
The Donkey Sanctuary does not disregard the traditional importance of the donkey hide ingredient in Chinese cultural heritage. They are calling for the eijao industry to accelerate efforts and find sustainable alternatives, such as artificially grown donkey collagen. For now, the donkey crisis remains as bad as it’s ever been.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.