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The donkey skins trade – a public health hazard and threat to livelihoods

Written by Harry Bignell, Global External Affairs Officer, and Dr. Marcela Randau, Research Coordinator, Brooke (LIDC NGO member)

October 1, 2020

Live donkeys, their skins and associated products cross borders without any surveillance, potentially carrying dangerous pathogens from country to country. Sounds all too familiar? Indeed – the Covid-19 epidemic started in a similar way.

In 2019, an outbreak of equine influenza in West Africa killed 62,000 animals in Niger alone. This was driven, according to The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), by a burgeoning trade in donkey skins to satisfy Chinese demand for ejiao, a gelatin made from boiling donkey skins that is used in traditional Chinese medicine and luxury cosmetics. This trade in donkey skins not only undermines local livelihoods – it is also a potential threat to both animal and human health.


The lives of millions in the Global South are intertwined with companion animals and livestock, including working donkeys. Donkeys are a vital part of rural community life, used for traction in agriculture, transport to and from markets, and domestic chores such as carrying clean water for families to drink and to water crops. In India, Pakistan, Kenya and Ethiopia, working equids (donkeys, horses and mules) are ranked by women as their most important livestock, helping with household tasks and providing regular income.


However, donkey populations are rapidly declining, with reports suggesting over 70% reduction in numbers in China alone since 1992. The demand for ejiao threatens donkeys as a species across Africa, Asia and South America. The sale or theft of these animals removes a vital pillar of rural life, threatening vulnerable communities’ economic security and leaving them at high risk of sliding into poverty.


In addition to this real and alarming threat to livelihoods, this trade poses a serious public health risk, endangering both animal and human health.


Donkey skins trade – a public health risk

In 2019, OIE suggested that an outbreak of equine influenza across West Africa was caused in part by the unregulated global movement of donkeys for the trade in their skin. In addition, glanders was on the rise in regions where the trade was most prominent. Whilst transmission to humans is currently rare, it is most common in those working closely with equids and can be fatal or result in chronic infection.

Between 2014 and 2018, four slaughterhouses opened across Kenya. The number of donkeys slaughtered, both in these licensed slaughterhouses and in the bush, was estimated at around one thousand animals per day. Donkeys are slaughtered without veterinary supervision, the meat and skins are not inspected. Sometimes, especially where the donkeys have been stolen, the animals are slaughtered and skinned in the bush, and their carcasses are left behind to be discovered by humans or eaten by other animals. Brooke East Africa have also received reports of traders selling donkey meat at markets, disguising it as other types of meat for unsuspecting consumers.

The cross border trade in skins is also a cause for concern. Donkeys are smuggled across borders to Kenya and Nigeria from surrounding countries for slaughter. Live donkeys, skins and associated products cross borders illegally and without any surveillance, carrying potentially dangerous pathogens, some still unknown, from country to country. Does it sound all too familiar? Indeed – the Covid-19 epidemic started in a similar way.

Covid-19 is evidence of the devastating consequences of unregulated global trade in animals and their products, compounded by poor animal health systems.


Threat to livelihoods

In addition to the direct health risks posed by the trade, donkey owning communities are faced with a threat to their economic survival. A 2018 Brooke study on the effect of donkey skins trade on local livelihoods across Kenya revealed that the theft or sale of donkeys was leaving owners vulnerable to poverty as they no longer had the means to earn a living. It also found that women and children suffer most, as tasks they were previously eased by donkeys such as carrying water, now fell entirely on their backs. Girls were first victims, since the loss of donkey often meant they were pulled out of school. Loss of income also represents an indirect risk to human health, as families can no longer afford medical fees and nutritious food, or travel to a clinic.

The need for an immediate ban on the donkey skin trade in Kenya became explicit.


Curbing the trade in donkey skins

Brooke is supporting communities to protect their animals from theft and emphasizing the lifelong value of these animals to dissuade people from selling them. We are also changing law, policy and practice to safeguard these animals, and tackling demand for donkey skins.

In February 2020, the Kenyan government announced a national ban on the slaughter of donkeys for the trade. To protect Africa’s donkey populations in the short term, we are working with regional institutions and international stakehodlers to push for a continent wide ban on donkey slaughter for the purpose of making ejiao.


Long-term solution – strengthening animal health systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a major weakness in animal health systems, a vital pillar of One Health. We need more and better trained animal health practitioners; affordable and accessible veterinary medicines and vaccines; a robust surveillance system in places were the animals are kept, transported and slaughtered; better collaboration across the animal, health and environmental sectors; and increased engagement with livestock-owning communities. With this in mind, we are launching a new initiative – Action for Animal Health that will bring various stakeholders together to call for greater investment in animal health systems to help prevent further pandemics of zoonotic disease.


In the long term, strong animal health systems and robust governance structures around the trade in animal parts are necessary to protect animals and the people who depend on them from the loss of livelihoods, health and lives.


Photo credits: Brooke

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