Under the skin: donkeys in crisis

Alex Mayers
Presentation date

Increased levels of personal wealth in China are fuelling demand for luxury products including ejiao, a product made using donkey skin. A traditional medicine, ejiao’s popularity is largely due to its reported anti-aging properties. Demand for donkey skins to produce ejiao is conservatively estimated at 4 million per year. This represents a significant proportion of the global donkey population of 44 million. China’s own donkey population has nearly halved in the last 20 years and entrepreneurs are now looking worldwide to satisfy a growing demand. Despite their essential role in livelihoods and 30 community resilience donkeys are largely invisible in livestock policies, livelihoods and humanitarian projects. It is therefore unsurprising that the emerging trade in skins is also invisible. Donkeys are frequently stolen from owners across Africa and illegally slaughtered in the bush; only the skins are removed and carcasses left to rot. In other areas, donkeys are bought at less than current market value and are transported in inhumane conditions to recently built legal slaughterhouses. In the short term donkey owners are facing donkey prices that have increased up to tenfold within a few years and they are without the means to replace animals they depend on. The invisibility of the trade is compounded by illegitimate export practices and criminal gangs. Due to the lucrative market for skins intensive farms are present in China and are likely to expand to other countries. Such rearing creates significant welfare concerns for a species poorly adapted to intensive practices. Australia has been exploring harvesting feral donkeys in the Northern Territories, possibly including some considered by indigenous communities to be owned and with cultural significance. This demand risks the welfare of donkeys, the communities who live with them, and, within a few decades, perhaps the species as a whole.