For centuries, Chinese physicians have praised the medicinal benefits of ejiao - a gelatinous substance derived from the hide of a donkey. As the demand has continued to grow, so has an emerging threat to the donkey population the world over.

Why is this happening?

Donkey hides are boiled to extract the gelatin/collagen and the resulting product is used for a multitude of different treatments - from cosmetic creams which are claimed to preserve youthful looks to medical cures, even edible snacks.

Prior to the 1990s, the demand for donkey hides and skins was largely fulfilled by a ready supply within China itself. However price controls by the authorities in 1994 impacted on the profitability of the industry and led to a production slump.

But a huge demand for ejiao in the past three years has resulted from the booming Chinese economy, with the medicinal and cosmetic virtues of the product being promoted heavily on the Internet to a cash-rich and geographically scattered Chinese population. Demand for ejiao almost immediately outstripped the available domestic supply and it has become ever more valuable and expensive. Traders and businessmen responded in a gold-rush style frenzy to capitalise on the extraordinary demand for donkey hides and have been scouring the earth in their search for donkeys.

What is at stake?

We have been deeply concerned at the number of recent cases where animals have been rounded up, stolen, slaughtered and skinned to in rural African communities to help feed the demand for ejiao. Communities and individuals from Asia to Africa and South America have been affected, losing their main means of income to donkey poachers. Then, as if the distress of this loss was not enough, it is compounded by the unaffordability of a replacement, since the price of a donkey has risen far beyond the means of many impoverished families.

The response to this threat has been patchy. Burkina Faso and Niger, two countries whose donkey populations were targeted by traders, have imposed a complete ban on the export of donkey skins and hides. Other countries have supported the establishment of donkey abattoirs to process the hides prior to export. Others have held discussions about more formal trade deals in donkey hides, from both domestic and wild donkey populations.

Underlying all these different responses and reactions to the ever-growing demand for the hides is an unsustainable trade, the effect of which has been and will continue to be compromised animal welfare and impoverishment of families and communities.