15 March 2022

We need more evidence and collaboration to tackle the donkey skin trade

Gemma Carder, Brooke Research Coordinator, discusses the need for an evidence-based approach in tackling the donkey skin trade.

Over the last few decades huge efforts have taken place by scientists, international NGOs and policy makers to preserve rhino, elephant, tiger and pangolin numbers - all used in traditional Asian medicine. Now it’s time to also invest efforts in reducing the demand for donkey skins, which will also protect livelihoods and reduce the suffering that donkeys experience at every stage of the trade.

The demand is largely driven by China, where ejiao, a gelatin made from boiling down donkey skin, is used in traditional Chinese medicine and beauty products. It is anecdotally believed to have a variety of health benefits, but there is no scientific evidence to back up this belief.

You could argue that it is not our place to criticise or attempt to change Chinese consumer’s habits, especially when eijao has been used for thousands of years. However, when the use of a species is not sustainable and individual animals are suffering terribly on a daily basis, I believe we do have to act.

As a researcher, I want to know the facts, and I want to know what the data tells us.

As a researcher, I want to know the facts, and I want to know what the data tells us. I also want to know the gaps in data, so we can identify where more research is needed.

We do know that in recent years the demand for eijao has increased dramatically. China alone cannot meet the demand for donkey skins. Due to the China’s strong economic development, less donkeys are used in transport and agriculture. This combined with an increased demand for donkey skins, has resulted in donkey numbers in China decreasing by 77 percent between 1990 and 2018. As a consequence donkeys are being sourced from other parts of the globe including Africa, South America and Australia. As demand increases and availability decreases, the price rises. Research suggests that when people in low and middle income countries lose their donkeys, they are unable to buy new ones which affects the livelihoods of those that rely on them for work.

Scientists estimate that it could take up to fifteen years to build up a Chinese farming system to meet the current demands for donkey skin in China. This could allow donkey numbers to recover in other parts of the world, but fifteen years is too long. IIt’s likely that the damage caused to both population numbers and livelihoods will not be able to recover.

More evidence and collaboration

The problem is huge, and may seem impossible to solve. But there is hope! There is a huge amount to learn from approaches used to tackle the wildlife trade. For instance, there are a number of studies which have explored attitudes towards the use of other traditional Asian medicines that use animal derivatives.

In relation to the use of pangolin scales, one study found that more than 70 per cent of doctors agreed that some use of pangolin scales could be substituted with other ingredients. Research of a similar nature is needed to explore consumer and practitioner views about the use of eijao. Such research can inform public awareness campaigns and tactics to reduce demand.

Working in partnership, Save the Rhino International’s Chai Campaign, which aimed to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, has had huge success. They achieved a 25% reduction in demand for rhino horn in two consumer groups through using evidence to inform behaviour change tactics. 

We also need research on consumers’ and practitioners’ views on the use of ejiao and potential alternatives. Further research is needed to assess the impact the trade is having on livelihoods, to support policy change.

Collaboration is critical to addressing the devastating effects of the donkey skin trade. We need to see better coordination and data sharing between the research community, INGOs, policy makers and the public.