They come from Africa. Asia. South America. Australia. Europe. And yes, even North America.
A booming demand for a traditional Chinese medicine, ejiao, is driving up prices for donkeys across the globe, say donkey researchers and welfare experts. Meanwhile, donkeys themselves are paying a much higher price, with often “brutal” slaughter methods and “horrific” pre-slaughter conditions, those experts say.
“We’re seeing absolutely terrifying scenarios, mainly in developing countries,” said Faith Burden, PhD, director of research and operational support at The Donkey Sanctuary, in the U.K.
This includes herding donkeys for hundreds of miles with no rest, food, or water or transporting them on tightly packed trucks for 24 hours at a time, Burden said. Many are sick or injured, and pregnant jennies often abort their fetuses during the journeys, as her organization described in a recently released report on the trade, “Under the Skin.”
Skins From North America
American donkeys and wild burros are no exception to the trade, said Amy McLean, PhD, equine lecturer at the University of California, Davis. “I’m currently working with a donkey rescue organization to remove donkeys from park service lands because the park service can just go in and euthanize those animals, or somebody from China can just come buy them,” she said.
The increased demand has shot up donkey prices across the U.S., said Marjorie Farabee, equine manager at Todd Mission Ranch Rescue, which houses nearly 400 donkeys, mules, and horses in Plantersville, Texas, and director of Wild Burro Affairs at Wild Horse Freedom Federation. “American donkeys are being sold to kill buyers who take them over the border (for slaughter in Mexico and Canada),” she explained. “They’re being trucked over Eagle Pass (southwest Texas-Mexican border).”
Like donkeys in developing countries, American donkeys take long journeys—generally by truck—to supply the high demand for their skins in China, she said.
Primary Ingredient for Traditional Chinese Medicine: Donkey Hide
Ejiao is essentially donkey hide gelatin, made from stewing the skins in local mineral water from the Shandong province where the traditional medicine originated more than 2000 years ago. Once reserved for China’s elite, ejiao is now marketed to China’s growing middle class, said Burden, adding that the industry now requires 4.8 million hides per year.
With only 2.6 million donkeys total in China, the country is importing hides in vast quantities from across the globe, experts told The Horse. “I honestly don’t think there’s a place in the world that hasn’t been touched by this trade or this industry,” said McLean.
Worldwide Price Hikes, Black Market
Across the U.S. owners are feeling the effects. “For years you could hardly give a jack away; they would sell for sometimes as little as $15,” said Jona Fletcher, a farmer in Martinsville, Indiana. “This year they were selling for $150 plus for jacks, and prices were even higher for jennies.”
Surging prices are also hitting owners in developing countries, where donkeys provide a way of life for many residents, said Philip Mshelia, DVM, equine lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria, Nigeria. There, donkey prices have quadrupled in recent years, with current prices in Kenya running at about $200.
Caring owners who love their donkeys and depend on them for transportation and business activities are waking up to discover their donkeys missing, stolen from them and shipped off to a brutal end, Mshelia said.
Devastated emotionally and financially by the loss, most of the owners can’t afford to buy a new donkey to replace the one that was stolen, said McLean. “The people become the donkey again,” she said. This mostly affects women and children, who must transport water and goods themselves and have to give up their education because they can’t get to schools.
Protecting donkeys and their owners from such a crisis is leading to new welfare issues in Africa, Burden said. Owners are taking their donkeys out of the fields and shackling them indoors, sometimes tethered and tied to their owners’ bedroom windows. Saving the donkeys from the skin industry comes at a severe price to their freedom and well-being, as well as that of their owners who live in constant stress of losing their donkeys, she said.
Chinese Production: “Good Welfare”
Within China, however, welfare is “fairly positive,” said McLean, who has visited several donkey farms in the Shandong province, where the traditional black Wu donkey is bred for its skin and meat.
“They’re making efforts year after year to improve welfare, which is better for the animal of course but also, consequently, for their production,” she said. “Health is of importance because if they’re not healthy they don’t conceive; they don’t reproduce; and the production stops there.” Breeders strive to respect the “Five Domains” described by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Many have large shared paddocks, sand pits for rolling, scratching posts, and even large, circulating fans, and some farms even take their donkeys to pasture to graze.
“Comparatively speaking, their welfare isn’t too bad in China,” she said, adding that she can’t speak for the slaughter process itself, because she hasn’t witnessed it. “If you think about it, they’re living two years in pretty positive conditions before slaughter. Is that worse than living a long life with issues of obesity and laminitis like we see in many ‘pet’ donkeys in developed countries, or working in developing countries in chronic pain and little to no nutrition? I’m not sure it is.”
Sensitive and Intelligent, Donkeys Suffer “Cruelly” for Exports
Several African countries have made it illegal to slaughter donkeys and/or ship their hides overseas, said Burden. But like in the U.S., where there are no slaughterhouses approved for processing donkeys, this doesn’t stop the trade in Africa, she said. It only means buyers move the animals across extreme distances to get to legal slaughter sites—or else slaughter them “cruelly and illegally” in open fields with axes and hammers.
“Donkeys are sensitive animals that don’t often display fear and distress overtly, but in these cases we observe donkeys showing extreme fear and distress, pulling away, trying to run away, trying to fight for their lives,” she said. Frequently, the donkeys watch other donkeys being slaughtered and skinned in front of them. “Certainly, the scenarios we’ve seen are very, very distressing.”
Donkeys are intelligent and observant, McLean said. The emotional and physical tolls they face in these conditions are excessive. “These donkeys are in constant, chronic pain for very long periods of time,” she said.
Withholding food and water from the donkeys for long periods before slaughter seems to be a universal practice in the trade industry, with experts in Africa, South America, and North America reporting the practice. “It’s easier to take the skin off a starved, dehydrated donkey,” McLean explained.
Solutions: Science, Education, Legislation, and More
Stopping the production of ejiao is unlikely anytime soon given the strong history and culture of the traditional treatment, said McLean and Farabee. The way forward in the immediate future isn’t to condemn the people behind the practice, but to protect the welfare of donkeys worldwide through enforced legislation, education, and management, they said.
“This is a cultural issue, and there’s no reason to attack people for doing it when it’s been an important part of their heritage for thousands of years,” said Farabee. “One of the most important things we can do for U.S. donkeys is pass the SAFE Act and include donkeys and mules in the language.”
For McLean, the ejiao industry should ideally aim to keep production local. “I’d like to see China self-sufficient so they’re not dipping into these other markets where donkeys are so needed,” she said.
Meanwhile, Burden explained she’d prefer to see donkeys removed from the ejiao industry altogether. “Cellular agriculture could provide more ethical solutions,” she said. “Donkey skin could theoretically be grown in a laboratory and replace the need for live donkeys.” Four years ago, The Horse reported on the first successful development of equine skin in a laboratory, carried out by scientists at the University of Barcelona, suggesting that growing donkey skin in a laboratory could be possible.
In developing countries, owners could benefit from assistance and education to protect their donkeys and even develop breeding farms if necessary, said McLean. Instead of fighting such a powerful industry, owners could instead adapt in ways that help ensure good welfare as well as conservation of local breeds that are risking extinction.
“These are extremely impoverished, desperate people, and they’re getting paid to do a job or sell a donkey, and they’re just trying to survive themselves,” she said. “Unfortunately, the donkey is getting the bad end of the stick. If the industry continues, at least we can aim toward improving the lives of the donkeys and their owners in these communities.”