Free-roaming donkeys and their role in ecosystem health


The emergence of free-roaming donkey populations globally has brought novel challenges for conservationists, land managers and animal welfarists alike. Donkeys (Equus asinus) are classified as ‘alien’ in sixteen countries where they are listed as being introduced by humans (IUCN-GISD 2020), and considered ‘invasive’ in countries where they are non-native and have potential to act as a threat to native biodiversity and natural ecosystems (McNeely et al. 2001). As non-native species, free-roaming donkeys are often framed as illegitimate and ‘out of place’. In places where they are deemed too numerous, donkeys are assigned labels such as ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’, further entrenching ideas of illegitimacy (Bough 2006, 2016; Celermajer and Wallach 2019). However, there has been limited research on the interface between science, policy and management for free-roaming donkeys, including the kinds of logics and rationales that are used to either support or denounce their presence in different geographical and ecological contexts.


We used both qualitative and quantitative techniques to review over 100 scientific articles, which were identified using a snowball technique and key search terms; manually checking each article to ensure its relevance. For the quantitative analysis, articles were classified under the following categories: Publication date; Country of study; Discipline of article; Type of article (field-based; literature-based or management-based); Biome (of study area); Focus of impact (whether impacts where measured/discussed with specific reference to donkeys, or for wider groups of species); Evidencing impact (whether an article measured environmental impact, discussed environmental impact or referred to presence only). All articles were qualitatively reviewed using NVivo (v.12.0) for categorical and thematic analysis as well as critical discourse analysis. This involved the identification of different issues that regularly appeared in the literature, ascribing fine-grade codes or ‘topic codes’. We then worked from topics to themes, systematically coding these themes while reflecting on meanings, positionality and underlying agendas. We also assessed the overall framing of the article, examining the extent to which donkeys were framed in positive, negative or neutral terms.


The project includes an extensive review of the scientific literature pertaining to the place and role of free-roaming donkeys. We critically examined the logics and rationales that are used to either support or denounce donkey presence in particular landscapes and discuss their ‘ecological belonging’ in relation to such contexts. Our findings indicate that free-roaming donkeys are largely understudied, misunderstood and clouded by dichotomous points of view, different conservation agendas and the presence of other ‘higher value’ species in the same habitats. We identify a critical need for more in-depth, site-specific studies on free-roaming donkeys, using tools and techniques from across the social and natural sciences. Such efforts would offer a richer, more holistic and comprehensive picture of free-roaming donkeys, considering both human and animal perspectives and the wider environment. This has important implications for generating long-term sustainable management solutions for free-roaming donkeys.

How free-roaming donkeys are framed positively and negatively in different global agendas


For thousands of years, the donkey (Equus asinus) has played an essential role in human society, underpinning the earliest forms of civilisation, facilitating critical trade networks, contributing to agricultural development, construction and mining. However, with the rise of motorised transport and agricultural machinery, the donkey was gradually turned loose in many places, and left free to roam. The emergence of free-roaming donkey populations has brought novel challenges for conservationists, land managers and animal welfarists alike. In many places they are categorised as ‘non-native’ and so framed as illegitimate and ‘out of place’.


This project consists of a critical review of academic literature, grey literature (institutional reports, working papers, government documents), media reports, and communications with field researchers and practitioners. Articles were identified using a snowball technique (Echeverri et al., 2018), using key search phrases (‘feral donkey’, ‘wild burro’, ‘feral equus asinus’, ‘free-roaming donkey’, ‘free-ranging donkey’, ‘wild donkey’). These articles were then checked for their relevance. Articles were treated as both information sources (to elicit empirical knowledge) and as cultural artefacts (Bowen, 2009; Clarke, 2005) for categorical and thematic analysis as well as critical discourse analysis. Using these articles as representations of societal and scholarly discourse, we systematically reviewed the use of donkey labels and elicited their meaning, in order to reveal inconsistencies and underlying agendas.


This project explores the social status of free-roaming donkeys, including how they are perceived, categorised and managed. It explores unique case studies of free-roaming donkeys around the world, including ‘wild burros in America’, ‘rewilded donkeys in Europe’, and ‘street donkeys in Brazil’. It considers how free-roaming donkeys are culturally and ecologically entangled within different landscapes, and then discusses how they might ‘belong’ to those landscapes. It finds that more attention needs to be given to the spaces and places that donkeys create and contribute to, as well as those they disrupt and challenge.

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

Presentation date

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.

Between welfare and conservation: understanding ‘risk’ in relation to feral and free-roaming donkeys

Presentation date

For thousands of years, the donkey (Equus asinus) has played an essential role in human society, underpinning the earliest forms of civilisation, providing critical trade networks, and contributing to modern western history through the colonisation of the ‘New World’. Yet, with the advent of motorised transport and agricultural machinery the role of the donkey has diminished in many parts of the world. No longer considered economically viable, donkeys have been turned loose over the years and left to fend for themselves (Mitchell, 2018). These feral and semi-feral donkeys are domesticated animals that have managed to re-adapt, survive and reproduce on their own, without human management. Australia now holds the world’s largest population of feral donkeys – thought to be around 5 million individuals. Here, they are framed as pests; no longer seen as useful to society or fitting for the landscapes in which they dwell. In these situations, donkeys can suffer due to local mistreatment or government attempts to contain the problem, as is the case with the controversial Judas Collar programme in Australia (Bough, 2006). Currently, very little is known about the welfare status of feral and free-roaming donkeys globally. Due to their ambiguous status (being neither owned nor wild) there is often a grey area with respect to their legal status, rights and protections. This paper suggests that more research is needed to understand how welfare issues are defined and prioritised in relation to feral donkeys – both at the individual level and population level.

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