Donkeys Are Being Slaughtered in Global Massacre As Demand for Their Skin in Traditional Chinese Medicine Grows

Donkeys around the world are in "crisis" as demand for their skin—which is used in traditional Chinese medicine—grows, according to a new report.

Non-profit The Donkey Sanctuary said the industry which produces the medicine ingredient—a kind of gelatin known as "ejiao"—requires around 4.8 million donkey skins every year. But given that China's donkey population has reduced from 11 million in 1992—the largest in the world at the time—to 2.6 million today, the industry has been forced to start importing donkey skins from around the world.

According to the report, this has placed unprecedented pressure on global donkey populations and even caused them to suffer drastic declines in some countries, such as Kenya, Botswana and Brazil.

These declines have sparked fears that donkeys could soon become a rarity in some countries, with researchers at Beijing Forestry University warning that demand for their skin could lead them to become the "next pangolin"—the world's most trafficked animal.

This donkey trade has serious implications for the welfare of these animals, according to the report.

"Cruel and often illegal treatment of donkeys by local traders is rife, and many donkeys experience horrendous and inexcusable suffering," the authors of the report wrote. "Sourcing is often indiscriminate, with mares in the late stages of pregnancy, young foals and sick and injured donkeys entering the trade. They are often transported, sometimes for days on end, in overcrowded trucks without food, water or rest. In some cases, up to 20 percent of donkeys will be dead by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse."

"Others will have broken or severed legs, or infected wounds, and be near starvation. On arrival at the slaughterhouse, donkeys can be held for days in packed compounds, again without access to food or water, before finally being slaughtered, often brutally," they wrote.

Furthermore, because injury and illness do not necessarily affect the quality of the donkey hide, there is little incentive for local traders to ensure that the animals are treated properly. And in some cases, the report claims, traders don't mind if the donkeys die due to injury, disease, starvation, or other causes, because they can avoid slaughter fees while still being able to harvest the skin.

Not only does the global trade have severe implications for the animals themselves, but it also has an impact on some of the world's most vulnerable communities. The report notes that an estimated 500 million people from the poorest regions of the planet rely on these animals.

"For many of the world's most vulnerable communities, and women in particular, donkeys are a pathway out of poverty and can be the difference between destitution and modest survival," the authors wrote.

"They are used daily to collect water and provide transport for families to attend health clinics and children to attend school. The income generated by donkeys transporting goods to market enables owners to invest in savings schemes, contributing to building stronger economies within their communities. For these people the trade in donkey skins has had a catastrophic impact," they said.

donkey hide, Ejiao
A man sprinkles salt to dry donkey hides spread on firewood at an abattoir in Ughelli, Delta State in southern Nigeria, on August 24, 2017. In Delta State, donkey hides are shipped to China, where they are boiled down and the gelatin, known as Ejiao, is sold in a market thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

The donkey trade operates both legally and illegally. In the illegal trade—where slaughtering donkeys and exporting their skins is against the law—the animals are often stolen. But even within the legal trade, regulations designed to protect the welfare of the animals and prevent the spread of disease are routinely flouted, according to the report.

The lack of adherence to regulations has also created the perfect breeding ground for infectious zoonotic diseases, which can spread among humans and donkeys alike.

While the report notes that some players in the ejiao industry have taken steps to source the skins more sustainably in China, the fact is that demand for the skins is outstripping supply. The Donkey Sanctuary is now calling for an urgent halt to the global donkey trade.

"We urge the ejiao industry to move away from sourcing donkey skins internationally and put in place measures to pursue humane and sustainable ways of meeting the industry's needs," the authors wrote. "Huge strides are being taken, for example, in the cellular agriculture industry in China and around the world."

These advances could potentially lead to a future where there is no need to slaughter donkeys for their skin in order to produce ejiao.

"Groundbreaking advances in the production of animal collagen set an encouraging precedent and may provide a promising option for the future of ejiao, with artificially grown, donkey-derived collagen, or even skin grown in laboratories, now a realistic prospect," the authors said. "This potential solution is already being explored by some ejiao producers. If realized, this could provide the ejiao industry with a regular, controlled and hygienic supply of raw products."

"As the crisis facing donkeys continues, it is more important than ever that we look towards humane, sustainable and safe alternatives that could meet the demand for ejiao without compromising the welfare of donkeys, the sustainability of communities, the health of the environment and the safety of the people who work in the trade and who consume ejiao products," they wrote.

CEO of The Donkey Sanctuary, Mike Baker, said that donkeys have never faced a threat on this scale before.

"These dependable, hard working, sentient animals experience appalling suffering as a result of the activities of skin traders across the world," he said in the report. "We have an obligation to ensure that these resilient, intelligent animals are treated humanely and have a life worth living. Time is running out and we must act now to save these incredible animals."

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