Forgotten animal given spotlight … as China scrambles for African donkeys

By Timo Shihepo

WINDHOEK – The almost forgotten beast of burden  – the donkey – is finally getting global attention and this is thanks to China.

After many years of playing second fiddle to other animals such as cattle, seals, elephants, hippopotamus, lions and rhinos, donkeys in Africa are now grabbing the headlines due to the high demand in China.

While champagnes would certainly be popped if southern African cattle were in high demand, in the Chinese market, the same appears to happen if donkeys are involved although donkeys are less valued and appreciated than cattle in Africa.

This can be confirmed by the recent outcries coming from almost all southern African countries and further afield on the continent after several Chinese businesses gave indications that they were keen to set up abattoirs to cater for the ever growing demand for donkey meat and hides in the Asian country.

In Namibia, two towns, Okahandja and Outjo, gave a go-ahead for the Chinese to set up abattoirs but what then followed was uproar from the local communities as well as from non-governmental organisations and animal activists.

Some of the reasons given for the uproars were that donkeys are not suitable as intensive production animals since they have long gestation periods, high foal mortality, and slow foal development rates.

The uproars were a bit against the norm where donkeys, before the Chinese interest, were allowed to stray in most parts of Africa and only given attention during the ploughing season.  In fact, stray donkeys were blamed for causing traffic accidents on the highways.

China is in the grip of a massive donkey shortage caused by soaring demand for e’jiao — a traditional medicine made by boiling donkey skin. Demand for e’jiao has doubled since 2010, hitting nearly 15 million pounds a year in 2015, according to the national e’jiao association.

The demand for e’jiao cannot be underestimated given the fact that China had 11 million donkeys just 30 years ago — the largest herd in the world — but despite intensive breeding programmes, that number has diminished to between 3 and 5 million animals.

E’jiao, a brown gelatin, is used to cure problems such as respiratory, dementia and infertility, among other illnesses.

“That thing (e’jiao) is quite expensive in China,” a Chinese national in Namibia told The Southern Times. According to USA Today, one block of e’jiao made in 2007 was valued at $47 a gramme, more expensive than gold.

“Yes we still buy,” the Chinese national added.

The use of donkeys in Africa is quite different to that of the Chinese.  While they are mostly for consumption and medicine in China, in Africa donkeys are mostly used as beasts of burden.

Donkeys are used to carry water containers, transport people and most importantly, plough fields. It’s almost a taboo for people to eat donkey meat in southern Africa, although a small number of people do consume it.  But that has not deterred the Chinese from going after the African donkeys.

Earlier this year, Tanzania and Botswana became the latest countries to ban the export of donkey skins in response to reports of hundreds of animals being killed every week.

“We had to ban the slaughter of donkeys because the animal was facing extinction without action,” Charles Tizeba, Tanzania’s Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries told parliament in May this year.

In South Africa, there were similar calls to ban the selling of donkey meat. According to the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty, donkeys in South Africa’s Mogosani village located in the north-west no longer stroll freely as the demand from the Chinese market intensifies.

It also said the donkeys were now being slaughtered in a barbaric manner to cash in on the Chinese demand.

In Zimbabwe, the government and the police have expressed reservations on the opening of a donkey abattoir in Umguza, just outside the second city of Bulawayo, amid fears that the meat might be sold locally.

According to The Herald, a local company, Battlefront Investments was building a $150 000 donkey abattoir, the first in the country that would have the capacity to dress more than 70 animals a day. The company was already buying donkeys for slaughter.

Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Deputy Minister Responsible for Livestock, Paddy Zhanda, was recently quoted by The Herald saying that eating donkey meat was taboo in Zimbabwe and from a government point of view, they wanted assurances that the donkey meat would not find its way into the local market.

“There is a lobby group that is totally against this abattoir and government’s position is that donkey meat cannot be consumed in Zimbabwe,” said Zhanda.

“We, therefore, want assurances that this donkey meat will not find its way into local butcheries.”

Zhanda said members of the public wanted government to protect them from the risk of consuming donkey meat without their knowledge.

“We, therefore, have an obligation to put measures in place to ensure donkey meat is not sold in local butcheries,” he said.

The national co-coordinator of the police anti-stock stock theft unit, senior assistant commissioner Erasmus Makodza, was also quoted by the newspaper saying many farmers had raised concern after learning of the planned opening of the donkey abattoir.

He said the farmers felt that their donkeys would be stolen.

“We are generally on our ordinary awareness campaigns and we deal with livestock farmers,” he said.

“Farmers are now worried that there will be an upsurge in thefts of donkeys,” he said.

Ethiopia has also banned the selling of donkeys, and according to recent media reports, donkey prices in Niger have increased to more than US$140 as the Chinese move in. Niger has also banned the selling of donkeys.

Meanwhile, Kenya is not following the trend of banning the selling of donkeys. Instead, the east African country has doubled its slaughtering capacity. Kenya has three existing donkey abattoirs estimated to be killing 300 donkeys per day to sell to the Chinese.

Kenya is perhaps the most open African country when it comes to exporting donkey meat. It had allowed anyone with financial means to open up an abattoir. This led to the fast diminishing of donkeys in the country which led to the government last week freezing new permits for donkey abattoirs to protect the animals.

“Going forward, all licences will be based on applicants providing a multiplication programme to arrest the rate of decline,” said the director of Veterinary Services of Kenya, Dr Thomas Dulu.

Other countries in Africa to ban the export of donkeys are Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. – additional reports from online.

October 2017
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