What is transport means to the average farmer in Africa is a delicacy and miracle cure to health enthusiasts in the Far East. Their needs are on a collision course, and donkey hide is becoming the new ivory.
The gelatine from donkey skin is a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine “ejiao”. As manufacturers struggle to meet rising demand, they have set up shop in Baringo and Nakuru counties, the first donkey abattoirs in Africa.
Mary Kipchoim, a donkey farmer in Mogotio, Baringo county, says there are increasing cases of people going to farms, stealing people’s donkeys and transporting them to the processing plant.
“In most cases, the thieves slit the animals’ throats and skin them from the neck down, leaving the meat to vultures and hyenas.”
Donkey skin goes for Sh30,000-Sh50,000 in the black market, depending on the donkey’s weight. Most of the donkeys found slaughtered had their ears, skins and tails missing.
Chonglin Heng, a Chinese residing in Nakuru, says ejiao was once prescribed primarily to supplement lost blood and balance.
However, today it is sought after as medicine for a range of problems, from simple colds and insomnia to delaying aging and increasing libido to treating the side-effects of chemotherapy and preventing infertility, miscarriage and menstrual irregularity in women.
The effectiveness of ejiao as a treatment for blood circulation and cancer has not been scientifically established. China’s National Health Commission dismissed it in February as “just boiled donkey skin”. This sparked uproar and the authority later apologised.
"In China, where most of the meat ends up, it is considered a delicacy, with some restaurants serving special donkey dishes that offer the genitals of donkeys," Heng says.
"Local attempts to replenish the herds have proved difficult. Unlike cows or pigs, donkeys do not lend themselves to intensive breeding. Females produce just one foal a year and are prone to spontaneous abortions under stressful conditions. So Chinese companies have begun buying donkey skins from developing nations."
Despite the declining population, donkeys remain a strong pillar in many rural areas in Kenya and have been celebrated for the last 13 years.
Today marks the National Donkey Welfare Day, set to be marked in 10 counties. Brooke East Africa CEO Fred Ochieng said in the recent past, the most prevalent problem donkeys have faced has been the threat of theft and illegal slaughter for their skin and meat.
"The day, which is held on every May 17, aims to create awareness on the importance of donkeys to the various communities they belong to," he said.
In Kenya, donkeys are used in various sectors, ranging from agriculture and transport to tourism and construction. They have the prospect of immediate income, and the threat of theft has forced many households to sell them.
"The value of donkey has sharply appreciated due to the high demand for the donkey’s products, such as its skin, innards, including liver and intestines, and its meat for export to Asian countries," Ochieng says.
Mogotio resident Ken Rotich says donkeys are the primary means of transport for food, water, firewood, goods and people.
"A few years ago, donkeys roamed freely across the country, nibbling at grass, awaiting their next call of menial duty. Now, they’re being driven to abattoirs in large numbers," Rotich says.
The Kenyan government, through the Meat Control (Amendment) Act 2012, approved donkey along with horse meat as a food animal.
"After the tests, it was proven that donkey meat is as safe as beef or mutton, and an agreement was reached to issue licences to those who are interested in operating slaughterhouses. However, the meat is not for local consumption but solely for export," a health officer says.
In Baringo county, Goldox Limited, a donkey slaughterhouse run by Lu Donglin, a Chinese, has turned the animal from a beast of burden to a livestock kept for meat.
The 10-acre abattoir slaughters 350-400 donkeys daily and employs more than 350 workers. Opened in 2016, it depends on suppliers from as far as Tanzania, Turkana, Trans Mara and Maralal.
Donkey-hide gelatin is produced by soaking and stewing the hide to make a traditional Chinese medicine product. Speaking to the Star, Donglin said donkey meat and other products from the facility are largely exported to China.
He said he processes donkey bones into bone meal, an important ingredient that is used as organic fertiliser and for animal feed preparation.
“We export the bone meal to China and also sell locally to animal feeds manufacturers. We end up with tonnes of bones and other donkey by-products,” he said.
No animal product goes to waste. Innards like liver, intestines and lungs are cooked under high temperatures and later dried in the sun. A huge chunk is sold to a Korean investor who rears crocodiles.
Dealers in donkey meat are facing rough times ahead, with the animal’s population said to be in rapid decline. Questions have been raised on the sustainability of the business, given the fall in the supply of the animal, with no sign of breeding plans to raise stocks.
According to a 2009 donkey census, there were 1.8 million animals in the country, with 45,000 of them in Nakuru county and 19,000 within Naivasha sub-county.
In Kenya, the absence of organised breeding programmes has raised concerns among abattoir owners, traders, vets and animal rights activists that the donkey population in the country could be wiped out in a decade or less.
Activists say that over the last year, more than 150,000 donkeys were slaughtered at abattoirs. Some are killed illegally by poachers and passed off as beef in the local market, where eating donkey meat is considered taboo.
With the donkey population dwindling, the focus is now shifting to commercial breeding programmes, which until now, have failed to meet the surging demand.
Residents believe the abattoirs should take the initiative and partner with farmers. Peter Kimani, a Naivasha donkey farmer, said: “The worry has been about the potential of donkey population getting depleted. Donkey abattoirs should ensure the slaughterhouses start recruiting farmers to do donkey breeding to multiply their populations.”
Brooke EA chief executive Fred Ochieng said breeding of donkeys is often a complicated process that has proved difficult across the globe. He cited how the Chinese have opted to buy donkeys from other countries as compared to breeding them in their country.
"Brooke EA and partners encourage protection and preservation of the species both by the owner and by the state," Ochieng said.
DONKEY DAY CELEBRATIONS
The National Donkey Welfare Day celebrations will be held in Kithyoko Grounds, Machakos county. Other counties that will also mark the celebrations include Naivasha, Kajiado, Narok, Baringo, Meru, Kirinyanga, Kiambu, Nyandarua and Nairobi.
Brooke East Africa, an international animal welfare charity, is among the animal welfare organisations dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules.
"Brooke EA targets over 400,000 donkeys, which support the livelihoods of approximately 2.4 million people. The important role of horses, donkeys and mules in the developing world is often unrecognised or underrated, but informative journalism has always helped fill this gap through accurate targeted and timely reporting," Ochieng said.
The CEO said the celebrations aim to create awareness on the importance of donkeys to the various communities they belong to. Brooke EA will be celebrating the donkeys under the theme 'Save our donkeys, Save our lives'. It will be marked in partnership with Farming Systems Kenya, Kenya Veterinary Associations, Kendat and Caritas Kitui
"The main event will be in Machakos at Kithyoko grounds, where a proposed slaughterhouse is set to be opened within the course of this year,” he said.
Brooke information officer Fatuma Matemu said Brooke EA trains local service health provides in 18 counties to build the capacity of vet students in universities on equine healthcare.
"We work with agrovets to promote equine health and equine medicine supplies and train communities on hoof care and management. We also create awareness on the vulnerability and care of pregnant donkeys, especially the working ones, through community engagement programmes," Matemu said.