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.

Global donkey population crisis

Donkeys are being traded and stolen as the demand for their skins increases, driven by the production of ejiao. It is estimated that the ejiao industry currently requires approximately 4.8 million donkey skins annually. With China’s donkey herd reducing from 11 million in 1992 to just 2.6 million currently, the ejiao industry has had to source donkey skins from around the world, placing unprecedented pressure on donkey populations globally, and contributing to the collapse of some national donkey populations.For many of the world’s most vulnerable communities, and women in particular, donkeys are a pathway out of poverty and can be the difference between destitution and modest survival. They are used daily to collect water and provide transport for families to attend health clinics and children to attend school. The income generated by donkeys transporting goods to market enables owners to invest in savings schemes, contributing to building stronger economies within their communities. For these people the trade in donkey skins has had a catastrophic impact.

Donkey welfare

It also has disastrous consequences for donkey welfare. Cruel and often illegal treatment of donkeys by local traders is rife, and many donkeys experience horrendous and inexcusable suffering. Sourcing is often indiscriminate, with mares in the late stages of pregnancy, young foals and sick and injured donkeys entering the trade. They are often transported, sometimes for days on end, in overcrowded trucks without food, water or rest. In some cases, up to 20 percent of donkeys will be dead by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse. Others will have broken or severed legs, or infected wounds, and be near starvation. On arrival at the slaughterhouse, donkeys can be held for days in packed compounds, again without access to food or water, before finally being slaughtered, often brutally. As injury and illness do not outwardly affect the quality of the skin, there is no incentive for local traders to ensure the humane treatment of donkeys. The death of a donkey due to injury, disease, thirst, starvation or stress is, at times, viewed favourably as slaughter fees are avoided and the skin is still processed.

Where legislation exists to safeguard donkey welfare, prevent disease transmission and protect the environment, overwhelming evidence demonstrates that it is ignored. Where the trade operates legally, it has grown so rapidly in size and complexity that it is almost entirely unregulated, with no means of monitoring the welfare of donkeys, or of tracking the source of individual skins. Where the slaughter of donkeys and the export of their skins is illegal, donkeys are being stolen and traded indiscriminately in defiance of national and local laws and cultural traditions. The trade has also been linked to the illegal trafficking of wildlife and drugs.

Risk of disease

A largely unregulated international trade in a product frequently derived from the unhygienic slaughter of donkeys of unknown health creates a high risk of the spread of infectious diseases across the globe. There are risks to human health from zoonotic diseases such as anthrax and tetanus. This represents an immediate health threat to people handling the skins and working in this trade, and demands urgent action. The threat to equines is clear too. The recent death of tens of thousands of donkeys across West Africa from numerous diseases, some of which remain undiagnosed, demonstrates the devastation that can be caused by the spread of disease, which is largely attributed to the movement of animals.

Growing opposition to unsustainable trade

To date, 18 countries have taken action, many due to concerns about the security of their donkey populations, the risk of disease spread and the impact on livelihoods. Communities are uniting to protect their donkeys against this incessant threat. The Donkey Sanctuary, along with its local partners and with Brooke and the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad, is working with national governments and local communities to protect their donkeys. With populations in some source countries collapsing, and an increasing number of countries taking a stand against the trade, the ejiao industry faces a challenge. Its supply from the international trade is finite and the number of skins required by the industry is simply not sustainable. Some in the ejiao industry have recognised these challenges and taken some steps to become self-sufficient in the supply of raw materials. Some industry representatives have indicated their intention to establish a reliable and sustainable source of raw materials domestically, thereby ending their reliance on the international skin trade, where it is virtually impossible to be sure that the supply has been sourced ethically and legally.

Under the Skin Report

2019 Update