Global donkey and mule populations: Figures and trends

Knowing how many donkeys there are in specific countries where welfare is compromised is a key concern for targeting efforts to improve donkey welfare. Additionally, accurate population estimates are vital for providing evidence and addressing the impact of population threats. The FAO annually report the number of donkeys and mules in each country. The last paper to investigate global and region trends dates back to 2000 and used FAO data from 1961 to 1997. This paper is an update focusing on global, regional and country level donkey and mule populations to understand if there have been any changes in the trends reported by the previous study between 1997 and 2018. Results show that the general trend identified between 1961 and 1997 is continuing with the number of donkeys globally increasing at a rate of ~1% per annum whilst mule populations are in decline at a rate of ~2% per annum. Results also suggest that the trend identified in the original paper are still evident today with the largest increases in donkey population seen in the sub-Saharan African region and greatest reduction noted in Eastern Europe with these two regions having different socio-economic drivers influencing these changes. These results highlight the multifaceted socio-economic drivers influence changes in donkey and mule populations demonstrating the complexity of designing targeted one-welfare approaches. Whilst the FAO donkey and mule datasets are the best available for understanding spatial-temporal distributions in populations there needs to be greater effort to promote the communication of information from the country level to the FAO. This can be directly supported by NGO’s by promoting the robustness of the FAO process for collating and disseminating this information. NGO’s should also seek to highlight the importance of this information for understanding global regional and country level drivers for equid population changes and potential threats to welfare as well as using this information to facilitate projects that support one-welfare

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The value of donkeys and mules: Bridging the gap between international partners

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Donkeys and mules have long been a cornerstone in human existence, both in industry and by supporting rural life. Donkeys play a particularly multifarious role in rural communities, from carrying water, food and crops, to aiding disaster relief efforts in areas that are inaccessible by vehicle. Despite their critical and central role in such environments, donkeys and mules are the ‘forgotten animals’, falling between gaps in legislation aimed at supporting rural households that rely on working animals. Neither donkeys nor mules are considered livestock, nor are they considered domestic pets, and they certainly fall outside many development or welfare agendas. Our ‘Value of Donkeys and Mules’ project aims to identify the role these animals play in rural households, and to quantify the value they bring to rural livelihoods. Further, we aim to identify links between the socio-economic status and cultural beliefs of equine owners and the welfare of their equines.

Working closely with international partner organisations, we have visited the brick kilns in India, where the transport of bricks by donkeys provides the main source of income for many rural households; and mountainous regions of Nepal, where mules are the primary method of transportation for both people and goods in otherwise isolated communities. During fieldwork it quickly became clear that, as well as understanding the beliefs and nuances of the communities we visited, we also needed to recognise the markedly different perceptions and motivations between ourselves and our partner organisations, as well as between researchers, assistants, and interpreters.

Whilst we had designed a seemingly robust study in theory, we were to embark on a steep learning curve when applying these designs in different cultural settings. I will present the early findings of our research in India, alongside the challenges and insights gained from working overseas.

Hide nor hair – the illicit trade in donkey hides is a threat to wild asses

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The global donkey population is estimated at 44 million and is largely associated with economically developing nations where donkeys are used as working animals. Donkeys play a central and critical role in supporting the livelihoods of millions of people accross the world, providing support for farming, enabling access to resources, and in food production. Global demand for diverse products of donkey origin has escalated rapidly, with a particular interest in the premium products resulting from donkey skins.

Ejiao is a traditional Chinese medicine product which is based upon extracts of donkey gelatin from donkey skins, mixed with herbs and other ingredients to form a gelatinous bar, which is marketed as a miracle cure for multiple health problems. Since 2010,  consumer demand for ejiao has increased rapidly, and subsequently, so has the demand for donkey skins. The Donkey Sanctuary estimate that a minimum of 1.8 million donkey skins are being traded per year, but this may be a gross underestimate. The increasing wealth and diaspora of the Chinese middle classes, alongside the apparent credibility of ejiao products, appears to have created such a high level of demand for donkey skins that global supply is struggling to keep up, leading to high prices and widespread claims of fraud. Such high levels of demand by the Chinese market are fuelling global reports of donkey theft and a sudden increase in the purchase price of donkeys. Products of donkey origin are so highly sought after that ejiao can sell for up to USD $500/kg.

The alarmingly high demand for donkey skins, and high prices that a donkey skin can fetch, positions donkey skin in a similar position as ivory or rhino horn. There is a complete lack of regulation over the utilisation of donkeys for the skin trade to fuel ejiao production, and new slaughter houses are opening at rapid rates to keep up with demand. Consequently, there has been a sharp rise in donkey thefts. As well as being unsustainable and harmful to rural livelihoods, this illicit trade could have devastating effects on populations of wild asses. Donkey skin is highly valuable, yet increasingly  scarce, making it feasible that traders will start targeting wild asses. The Afrcan Wild Ass Equus africanus is Critically Endangered, with fewer than 200 mature indivduals remaining in the wild; unfortunately, the species occupies an area of Africa where the trade in donkey skins is high, exposing it to risk of being targeted. There is also some indication that populations of Asiatic Wild Ass Equus hemionus could also come under threat, given their proximity to China and surrounding socioeconomic climate.

The international trade in donkey skins has emerged rapidly and fiercely, and is grossly unsustainable. The trade has the significant potential to eradicate populations of  donkeys across Africa, and poses a serious threat to the conservation and survival of African Wild Ass populations. In this presentation I raise and highlight these issues, and open up discussion for how this new threat may be mitigated for the conservation and management of wild equids.

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