“My dream is to improve the lives of working donkeys in the isolated areas of Lesotho; that is my aim” said Sylvester Bereng, a Mosotho (person from Lesotho) who is coming to the end of a six-month equine-welfare inspector training course. Provided by Highveld Horse Care Unit and sponsored by The Donkey Sanctuary, the training means that Sylvester is learning to identify and address welfare problems that he sees by developing his skills in performing clinical examinations, giving basic treatments, cleaning wounds, fitting harnesses etc. When I met him today, he proudly told me about his training, his goals and the situation with working equines in the rural kingdom in the sky.
Lesotho (pronounced ‘Le-soo-too’) is the only country in the world to lie entirely above 1000 meters above sea-level and these mountains and valleys are peppered with small villages that rely on donkeys to survive. Donkeys carry everything including water, wood, coffins and even other animals when they are sick. They are completely indispensable. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Lesotho has 146,000 working donkeys and 87,000 horses but only 19 government vets and 5 private vets. They also cite ‘no evidence’ of any animal welfare organisations in the country. Around three quarters of the Basotho (the people of Lesotho) live in rural areas with very few roads through the mountains so subsistence farmers who rely heavily on their working equines are, in essence, on their own.
The statistics don’t quite tell the full picture. Sylvester, originally from Qachas Nek (the ‘Q’ is pronounced as a tut-like click) in the east of Lesotho, talked me through the ‘rampant stock theft’ that leads to horrendous welfare problems. When stock theft is suspected and the police get involved, the thieves dash into the mountains leaving the stolen donkeys and horses to be rounded up and put into a pounds managed by the district administrators. Sylvester is aware of 17 such pounds around Lesotho but as the animals are essentially kept as ‘exhibits’ relating to a crime, they cannot be released and as they aren’t easily identified, they can only be returned to their rightful owners in exceptionally rare cases. With no access to water or food, the pounds are virtually a death sentence with animals suffering horrendously.
The government of Lesotho has historically been very wary of foreign organisations so the answer must come from within; Sylvester is driven to change things. He dreams of working with local leaders to build support, of tackling welfare in the pounds, preventing equines from being stolen in the first place and of influencing legislature to pass laws that protect animals. His road will be as steep as Lesotho’s mountains but although there are no welfare organisations yet in the country, he is not alone; with The Donkey Sanctuary, our partners and our supporters behind him, in Sylvester’s own words: ‘We will get there!’