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Africa’s Donkeys are Being Slaughtered for Medicine in China

China’s demand for a traditional medicine known as e-jiao is fueling the slaughter of millions of donkeys every year, say animal welfare groups and veterinary experts. E-jiao, which is made using collagen extracted from donkey hides, is the vital ingredient in food and beauty products believed by many Chinese consumers to enrich the blood, improve the immune system, and prevent diseases. Reuters spoke to more than a dozen experts, including veterinarians and academics, to examine how demand for e-jiao is rippling across communities in Africa, which rely heavily on the donkey, and how the trade in hide continues to boom despite efforts by some African nations to restrict it.

Traditionally, e-jiao was a luxury product. It gained favor among elites during the Qing dynasty that ruled China from 1644 until 1912. Its popularity has surged in recent years due partly to its use in the Chinese television series ‘Empress in the Palace’, which started airing in 2011. The rise in demand has also been fueled by China’s growing middle class and rising elderly population. Its price has leapt 30-fold in the past decade from 100 yuan per 500 grams to 2,986 yuan ($420), according to Chinese state media. The e-jiao industry requires an estimated 5.9 million donkey skins annually, which has put unprecedented pressure on global populations, according to a report released in February by The Donkey Sanctuary, a British charity devoted to the animal’s welfare. China’s donkey population has fallen more than 80% to just under 2 million from 11 million in 1992, prompting its e-jiao industry to source donkey skins from overseas.

The consumption boom for e-jiao has led to international commodification of donkeys, says Lauren Johnston, an expert on China-Africa relations who published a study in January last year called “China, Africa and the Market for Donkeys”. As Africa has the world’s largest donkey population, it has emerged as the key source of donkey skins.

The donkey is used extensively as a workhorse across the continent, particularly for transport, helping to alleviate poverty. It frees many women and girls from some hard physical labor and domestic chores. Its essential role in many African villages clashes with the sky-rocketing demand for donkey hides in China, Johnston said.

“Aside from donkey welfare and supply risks, the consequences for the rural poor in Africa - women and girls in particular - are heart-breaking and counter to mutual development goals,” she said.

In Nigeria alone, tens of thousands of donkeys are slaughtered annually due to the demand for hides, according to Ibrahim Ado Shehu, a veterinary epidemiologist in the capital, Abuja. While Nigeria’s government banned exports of donkeys in 2019, slaughtering was still permitted. Typically, donkeys are brought from neighboring Niger - across the northern border - on a market day, sold off and driven in trucks to southern Nigeria, where they are slaughtered and the skin is exported to China, he said.

The African Union - the 55-member regional bloc - said in February it had banned the slaughter of donkeys for their skin across the continent. The next step is the creation of policies by the Regional Economic Communities (REC) and member states to guide the implementation of the African Union resolution, said Mwenda Mbaka, a veterinarian and animal welfare expert based in Kenya.

“Any government that condones the continued slaughter of the donkeys is in contravention of the ban,” he said. “Such countries can be censored through the structures established for the purpose by the REC and Continental frameworks.”

[Source: Reuters News Service; The Wall Street Journal]

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