by Alexandria Williams
In Africa it’s said that “if you don’t have a donkey you become a donkey yourself”. A proverb that is becoming more relevant as China’s ejiao (donkey-hide gelatin) producers look to the Continent for resources.
Ejiao is a glue derived from stewing donkey skin and refining it into a tonic. It is popularly used in traditional Chinese medicine and can be traced back to the Tang dynasty. In the modern era, its use has been revived as a method to “prolong life”, make skin “creamy” and “prevent miscarriages”.
Although ejiao’s medicinal properties have come into question, the product continues to grow in popularity throughout China. The nation’s donkey skin industry grew at a rate of15% annually from 2015-2020. Pursuit of ejiao products has been attributed to China’s growing middle class and clever advertising tactics on the part of ejiao producers.
Dong-E-E-Jiao, one of China’s biggest ejiao producers, places products in popular “palace dramas” (one of China’s most popular television genres among women). The company has also received additional clout from its designation as a “Time-Honored Brand”, a title granted by China’s Ministry of Commerce to Chinese enterprises who sell products honoring traditional production techniques. Products from companies with this title are typically given as gifts during holidays or business interactions.
Dong-E-Ejiao currently accounts for 75% of China’s national total production volume of ejiao and reached a profit volume of37.1 billion yuan in 2017 alone.
As the demand for ejiao increased, China’s donkey population plummeted. From 1954 to 2013 the total population of donkeys in China was reduced by 52%. Facing dwindling domestic numbers, ejiao producers are looking abroad to feed growing demand. According to the president of Dong-E-E-Jiao, around 20% of the company’s donkey skin comes from imports. A major source of these imports are African nations.
While companies like Dong-E-E-Jiao win out, farmers throughout Africa suffer compounding losses. Over 14 African nations have instituted legislation blocking the commercial slaughter and export of donkeys. Prior to tackling the problem, Niger’s donkey skin export industry grew from 27,000 to 80,000 over a one year period. As a result, the price of a donkey in Niger grew from $34 to over $100.
Most recently, Kenya joined the list of African nations to tackle the problem. In February, the Kenyan government ordered the closure of all four of the nation’s donkey slaughterhouses.
Major credit for the closure goes to a group of donkey owners, many of them women, who camped out at Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya’s offices shouting “we are not donkeys”. Prior to the ban, cases of donkeys stolen and skinned to sell at regional slaughterhouses were on the rise.
“Donkeys being stolen and slaughtered in the bush and the skin being removed” was a “common occurrence”, Raphael Kinoti, chairman of the Alliance of Donkey Welfare Organizations in Kenya and CEO farming systems Kenya, said in a Zoom interview. “Women would come out looking for the donkeys and find [it] killed for skin in the bush”.
Though donkey skin was a quick form of cash for some, rural communicates suffered “extreme adverse effects” that outweighed the value given for the donkey itself. “Income that a household derives from a donkey is incomparable” said Kinoti, ” the whole donkey slaughter trade is a total loss to Kenya as a country and to Africa”.
Much of the burden of the loss of donkeys has been felt by women and children. In Kenya, over 70% of the landmass is arid and there is little provision of water in households. Donkeys are used to carry water, transport products to villages for market days, plow fields and act as a form of transport. Their financial contribution to a household is estimated at over $100 per month.
According to Brooke East Africa, 15% of Kenya’s donkey population alone was slaughtered for export from April 2016 to December 2018. If the problem had not been mitigated, Kenya’s donkey population would have been reduced to nothing by 2022.
Once decimated, donkey populations are hard to recover. Donkeys are known to suffer from miscarriages and have a particularly long gestation period, making them hard to breed. In addition, increased demand for donkey skin and low supply of donkeys has driven up the cost of donkeys 50 – 100% since 2016, making it financially difficult for households to purchase a new one.
“According to communities, it was beginning to look like Chinese businessmen were more important than the community,” said Kinoti.
“Global donkey populations are in crisis. Donkeys are being traded and stolen as the demand for their skins increases, driven by the production of ejiao, a traditional Chinese remedy believed by some to have medicinal properties.”
Communities suffered greatly from under-regulated donkey skin trade, but Kenya as a nation lost as well. Investigations revealed that slaughterhouses were under-declaring revenue received from donkey skins, preventing the government from collecting taxes. Part of their ability to get away with this was the illegal theft and slaughter of donkeys. Investigations revealed that the Kenyan government could have lost around $259 million (Ksh28 billion) per year in tax to an industry entirely designed for products to be exported to China. Compared to the profit that China was getting from buying the skins and what the donkey itself was being bought for stakeholders in China “were making 1000% profit”.
The problem with East African donkey skins could not have been addressed without Kenya. Uganda and Ethiopia had already banned the trade in donkey skins in 2017. But regional cohesion was necessary to put a stop to the trade entirely.
“Prior to the ban, there was a significant amount of underground movement, because we had reports of donkeys being stolen in Tanzania, and then they would be sold to middlemen near the border. And middlemen at the border would then walk the donkeys across unmarked points of the different border points of Tanzania and Ethiopia and Uganda” said Samantha Opere, Veterinary Surgeon and Project Manager at Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies in a podcast interview with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
But not all East African countries have closed their slaughterhouses. Tanzania still has one slaughterhouse that is still in operation. “This needs to be an issue that the African Union takes up,” said Kinoti when asked about the necessity of a regional ban.
As long as China leaves the market open and slaughterhouses run, the donkey skin trade will continue to exist. China has done little to reduce the demand for donkeys and donkey skins. The nation has, on the contrary, made efforts toward pushing it forward. “As african countries are reigning in the trade chinese government is opening up the door completely,” Kinoti remarked.
In 2017, while African countries were racing to institute laws restricting donkey skin trade, China reduced the import tax on donkey skins from 5% to 2%. When other East African nations finally managed to ban exports Kenya not only approved the opening of three Chinese-owned slaughterhousesover an 18 month period, but also approved bilateral trade agreements meant to ease the registration process for donkey skin trading companies.
Recognition of the necessity and willingness of Chinese operators for donkey skins could be the reason why slaughterhouses in Kenya are still fighting to stay alive. After ardent On June 15th, Kenya’s High Court revised February’s order after ardent petitioning by owners of Kenya’s four slaughterhouses.
The problem African countries face in grappling with preserving wildlife, over the temptation of capital from China is not new. In South Africa, local gangs team up with Chinese crime syndicates exchanging abalone for methamphetamines. It has been estimated that 96 million individual abalone have been smuggled illegally from South Africa since 2000. As a result, much of the revenue from South Africa’s abalone exports go to those higher up in the value chain. This illegal trade also subverts the tax system, leaving little benefit at all for local communities.
As China’s middle class continues to grow and with it tastes and preferences, domestic resources will become more strained. The nation’s vibrant network of state owned industries, private companies and corporations will continue to look abroad for substitutes. While China is able to (temporarily) withstand the effects of primary resource depletion because of its industrial capacity, African nations that have not reached wide scale industrial development, will not. It will be up to African leaders to choose between investing in projects aimed at industrialization, take more seriously the regulation and pricing of agriculture and wildlife exported abroad, or continuously search for new resources to provide.
Alexandria Williams is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist.