China is Ravaging Africa's Donkey Population

China is shipping in large numbers of donkey skins from Africa in order to tap into a mysterious ingredient with rumored miraculous health benefits.

Ejiao, also known as donkey-hide gelatin, is made from collagen proteins in the skin of donkeys and is said to aid with bleeding, dizziness, insomnia and coughing.

Ejiao has recently seen a significant spike in demand, selling for around $783 per kilogram, with the Chinese market increasing in value from $3.2 billion to $7.8 billion between 2013 and 2020, according to China-Africa relations expert Lauren Johnston in an article in The Conversation This is thought to be because of the cost of ejiao being newly covered by health insurance, as well as the popularization of the alternative medicine on TV.

This has led to huge increases in the number of donkeys killed to produce the substance, many of which are in Africa, home to two-thirds of the global donkey population.

young donkey
Stock image of a young donkey. Demand for donkey hide gelatin in China has caused populations of donkeys to crash in Africa. iStock / Getty Images Plus

A study by The Donkey Sanctuary, a British charity dedicated to protecting donkeys found that populations are "collapsing" across Africa, South America and Asia, due to the ejiao industry requiring about 4.8 million donkey skins a year. According to the report, donkey populations have dropped by 37 percent in Botswana, with another study published in the peer-reviewed Animals journal finding that in South Africa, the donkey population is thought to have decreased from 210,000 in 1996 to about 146,000 in 2019, mostly due to the export of donkey hides.

But does ejiao even have any health benefits?

What Is Collagen?

"Collagen in the skin is critical to provide structure and smoothness. As people age, collagen breaks down and this results in more saggy and wrinkly skin," Charles White, a pharmacy professor at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, told Newsweek. "Aging collagen is degraded by oxidative stress (free radical damage) and inflammation. If old collagen is removed, it can be replaced with higher quality collagen."

"While there is a whole industry selling solutions, there is really only evidence that sunscreens that protect against ultraviolet damage and retinols that can clear out older collagen allowing for newer collagen to be created have effectiveness in combating wrinkles. The jury is still out as to whether antioxidants can slow down the degradation of collagen or whether having animal collagen available so the body can make its own collagen more readily and put it into the skin."

Is Ejiao Good For You?

Donkey collagen in particular has been shown in single-cell studies and mice to reduce inflammation and help prevent oxygen-free radical formation, but these results have not been found in humans.

"In models of skin wear and tear, there is some data showing a reduction in wrinkling. However, there is no definitive data in human beings showing that people look younger when they receive donkey collagen or any other form of collagen," White said.

ejiao donkey hide gelatin
A food made from ejiao, jujube, walnut, rose and sesame. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"Similarly, there are animal studies combining donkey collagen with other dietary supplement ingredients like Radix Notoginseng where inflammation in the colon (like from ulcerative colitis) is reduced and that the inner lining of the large intestine heals more readily. However, whether this is an effective therapy in the treatment of Celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis is not known. People believe that donkey collagen can reduce bleeding on its own but I believe that it is the Radix Notoginseng that is given along with it that is providing that benefit. We have some rat studies to show the benefit with Radix Notoginseng by itself but I am unaware of data for Donkey collagen alone providing this benefit."

The medical research, therefore, does not support ejiao having any health benefit, similar to many other so-called miracle cures in traditional medicines, like rhino horn or tiger bone.

"There is usually a thread of truth in most natural product health claims but those threads are usually very thin," White said. "By that, I mean that they might do something to this chemical in cells in an incubator that...are relative to final health outcomes, but when they are used in complex organisms, they do not produce that benefit."

Additionally, even if ejiao collagen did have some benefits, there are many other sources of collagen available without having to kill donkeys just for their hide.

"Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body as it is a major component of bone, skin, muscles, tendons, and cartilage," Vicki Kotsirilos, an associate professor of medicine at Monash University in Australia, told Newsweek. "Collagen is found in foods such as the skins, bones, and muscles of chicken, beef, pork, and fish. Collagen can also be sourced from bone animal broths. Some plant foods such as legumes and nuts provide the necessary amino acids for our body to produce collagen. It is much better we source the natural amino acids or collagen from our foods and not from supplements which raises a number of ethical issues."

Donkey Population Declines

The decrease in the donkey population is a huge problem, especially in Africa, where donkeys support the livelihood of an estimated 158 million people.

In Ghana, owning a donkey saves adults five hours and children ten hours of labor each week, and also allowed young girls to attend school.

While Botswana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania banned or limited the trade of donkeys, much of the exporting is still due to smuggling, according to Johnston via The Conversation. This then leads to increased donkey thefts and more inhumane treatment of the donkeys themselves.

Mike Baker, CEO of The Donkey Sanctuary, said in a statement that "never before have donkeys faced this level of threat."

"These dependable, hard-working, sentient animals experience appalling suffering as a result of the activities of skin traders across the world," he said. "They are often transported across long distances, without food, water or rest, and they can be held for days in yards without shelter, before being slaughtered in often brutal conditions."

The Donkey Sanctuary describes in the report how they obtained a video showing donkeys being hit repeatedly with hammers to kill them in a slaughterhouse in Tanzania.

In the report, they also say that "many of the donkeys were emaciated
and had severe injuries including broken legs and large open wounds", and in some cases, "skinned carcasses were dumped in pens alongside the donkeys awaiting slaughter."

The South African Institue of International Affairs tweeted, "There's a clear and urgent need for stronger regulations around ejiao. A donkey hide trade may be possible if African countries work out sustainable mechanisms, prevent damage to local interests and help to counter the illicit trade."

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