9 June 2021

'Sleepless nights' as Kenyan communities react to lifting of donkey skin ban

A Kenyan court’s decision to allow the resumption of donkey slaughter for their skins has sent shockwaves among equine-owning communities, who heavily rely on the animals for their livelihoods.

On Wednesday 5 May, a Kenyan court ruled that a ban on the slaughter of donkeys, announced by the Kenyan government in February 2020, was to be lifted, after slaughterhouses argued it violated workers’ rights.

Prior to the ban, hundreds of thousands of donkeys were being slaughtered every year for their skins at Kenya’s four slaughterhouses. The skins were then exported to make ejiao, a popular traditional Chinese medicine. The trade also spawned a black market as the value of donkeys increased and donkey theft became the norm, with an average 60 donkeys stolen a week in 2017. Now, communities fear their donkeys will once again be at risk.

Margaret, a donkey owner in Narok County, said: “I have had sleepless nights since the court legalised the existence of the donkey slaughterhouses. The announcement will obviously open the door for donkey theft, which was so rampant when the slaughterhouses were in operation. I owned three donkeys but two were stolen back in 2018 when the slaughterhouses were in operation.”

James Cochhoki Gakono, Chairman of Ndorome Gituto Donkey Riders Self Help Group, has lost three donkeys at the hands of the trade: “The donkey has helped in many ways. I get my food, educate my children and the piece of land I bought was because of the donkey. When I heard my donkey was slaughtered, it hurt me. That has taken our lives backwards. I don’t have much now because my donkeys were slaughtered. I’m now trying the best I can to get something else to do. I don’t have enough money and the little finances I have cannot buy another donkey.”

There are approximately 1.2 million working donkeys in Kenya today, compared with 1.8 million a decade ago, according to government data. They are heavily relied upon by communities, especially women, to transport water and farm produce, as well as commercial goods.

Jane, a donkey owner in Mogotio Sub-County, said: “Donkeys have been helpful to us for many years. As women, we refer to the donkeys as our co- wives, because if one lacks a donkey, they would suffer. We were really happy when the donkey abattoirs were closed because we could see a future with them as they would increase in number.” She adds: “Our livelihood is in danger.”

Annastacia, a donkey owner in Kitiu and Machakos County, said: “My children have lacked access to (further) education since my donkeys were (stolen and) slaughtered. Some of my children even ended up dropping out of school. If this theft comes back, I might even lose the donkey I got as help from my community”.