11 January 2022

Donkey Skin Trade in West Africa - Ghana corridor puts donkeys at risk

Brooke West Africa's Regional Representative Emmanuel Sarr recently visited an active slaughterhouse in Ghana. His findings present a harrowing picture for donkeys and their owners.

When travelling in Africa, the first thing to notice as you move from urban to rural areas is the presence of donkeys in and around the road. While this can sometimes be dangerous for motorists, it is an indicator of the changing environment. On a recent visit to northern Ghana, I was taken aback by the lack of donkeys in view.

In 2016, when the donkey skin trade hit West Africa, many countries adopted bans. Although Ghana is said to have supported this, no ban has ever been enforced in the country. As such, smugglers have seized the opportunity to transport donkeys alive from countries like Burkina Faso, where the trade is illegal, to be slaughtered in Ghana before sending the skins to China to be used in traditional Chinese medicine.

My visit to Ghana started at the Walewale slaughterhouse, located 723km from the capital, Accra. The slaughterhouse was opened in 2012 before being closed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2017. However, I was surprised to find that the Chinese-owned abattoir is now re-opening for business.

Reluctant to reveal our true identity, the team and I introduced ourselves as researchers and were shown around the premises. The slaughterhouse was relatively modern and contained infrastructures allowing rapid completion of the various stages of slaughter. There were no donkeys around and just a few employees were present, including the top management. 

We were alarmed by two serious shortcomings. Firstly, we were told that there was no stunning involved in the slaughtering method and that donkeys had their throats slit directly. This is of course an extremely cruel process and there is no sign that this will be improved in the near future. Secondly, officials were simply pilling the bones of donkeys behind the building with no idea of what to do with them. 

This slaughterhouse appears to be at the heart of a system that fuels the illegal donkey skin trade in West Africa. Even though there were no donkeys during our visit, those in charge were preparing for the resumption of operations. 

Following our visit, we decided to visit Bolgatanga, a town in upper Ghana close to the Burkina Faso border, well known as an area of bush slaughter. 

Here, we came across three ‘slaughter points’. These are vacant lots located in villages or backyards of houses where butchers carry out the mass slaughter of donkeys without any regard for animal welfare, hygiene or the environment. According to our surveys, there are 25 slaughter points in the municipality of Bolgatonga alone, each one slaughtering an average of 20 donkeys a day. 

We reported our findings to the authorities, including the Regional Veterinary Officer, Dr Nii Ayi Anang. According to him, it is difficult to fight the issue as donkey meat is considered as bush meat and is consumed by many people in Ghana. This was also confirmed by slaughter point owners, who informed us that the donkey meat is smoked and sent to Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi, to disguise it as bush meat. This means not only are donkeys suffering horribly from unethical slaughter, the people of Ghana are being misled.

We also informed Dr Anang about the resumption of operations at the Walewale slaughterhouse and he promised to get more information and report to the central level. 

Finally, we travelled 30km across the border to Burkina Faso, where donkeys are sold at the livestock market in Guelwongo before being transported to Ghana. Here, we saw hundreds of donkeys waiting to be sold, many were suffering from heat stress, disease, trauma and body lesions. This market is held every three days and thousands of donkeys are crossing the border to be slaughtered in Ghana every month. 

It is clear from this visit that the Burkina Faso – Ghana corridor has become a huge epicentre of the donkey skin trade. It is vital that both countries take action if we are to stop donkeys from disappearing all together. 

We are still making progress in the fight against the trade – In East Africa late last year Tanzania became the latest country to ban the donkey skin trade, and soon I will be meeting with the minister of livestock in Cote d’Ivoire to discuss protecting the trade, as well as the welfare of their donkeys in work and transport.

We still need your support. If you haven’t already, please sign the petition to call on world leaders to ban the trade, and share this social media badge on Facebook to spread the word.