18 November 2020

Why donkey breeding will not solve Kenya’s ejiao problem

Claims from slaughterhouse owners that donkey farms are the solution to dwindling donkey population numbers ignore the complexity of donkey welfare needs, says Samuel Theuri, Advocacy and Innovations Officer at Brooke

Timber carrying donkeys in Kenya

Credit: Freya Dowson/Brooke.

In a fresh bid to overturn the Kenyan government’s decision to ban the slaughter of donkeys for the production of ejiao, a gelatin produced from donkey skin used in cosmetics and Traditional Chinese Medicine, Goldox Donkey Abattoir argued that farming donkeys could be the solution to the country’s dwindling donkey population. Over the last nine years, Kenya’s donkey population has declined by a third.

This move completely ignores the complex welfare risks associated with breeding donkeys, as well as the volume of donkeys that would be required to meet demand.

Ejiao’s medicinal benefits are unsupported by clinical research, but this has not prevented it from soaring in popularity amongst those able and willing to pay the £300/kg it can fetch. The popularity for this luxury product has fuelled a vociferous trade across the world but especially in Africa, and four slaughterhouses were set up in Kenya in the last decade.

This soon led to Kenya becoming the epicentre of the trade, with 15% of the country’s donkey population being slaughtered in one of these four slaughterhouses between April 2016 and December 2018, not to mentioned those illegally slaughtered in the bush.

Donkey owners protest against the donkey skin trade in Kenya.

In February 2020, Cabinet Secretary of Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture Peter Munya responded to the desperate pleas from local donkey owners who had lost their donkeys to the trade and their livelihoods along with it. He ordered an immediate halt to the slaughter of donkeys for ejiao and revoked the licenses of all four slaughterhouses.

The slaughterhouse owners are contesting the decision in court and, in their latest bid to overturn the ban, Goldox Donkey Abattoir have taken to Kenya’s newspapers to advertise their donkey farms. They argued that this initiative will counteract the impact the donkey skin trade has on donkey populations, one of the central tenants of CS Munya’s decision to introduce the ban.

Brooke East Africa tackled the slaughterhouses through its own media campaign. 

The reasons it won't work: 

Breeding donkeys? Not so fast

The average donkey pregnancy lasts for well over a year. The University of Reading conducted a study earlier this year to analyse how quickly new donkey breeding systems that are being set up in China may be able to produce the 4.8 million skins needed annually. Results show it will take at least 10 – 15 years for new farming systems to meet the demand. Also, research suggests that nutrition affects reproduction, meaning breeding is even more challenging in resource-poor environments where donkeys are often less well nourished, such as in Kenya.

The welfare implications

Donkeys are sentient beings. They suffer from negative physical and emotional states and benefit from and enjoy positive experiences. Donkeys as a species have high welfare needs, as outlined by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

In order for farms to breed donkeys in a welfare friendly way they must satisfy the Five Domains of animal welfare that protect animals’ needs. For donkey breeding, this would relate to how they are fed, transported, given space to roam and how they’re given appropriate and regular professional health care, to name just a few. Handlers would also need to be trained in how to recognise behavioural signs of compromised welfare.

On a small scale, it may be achievable to meet some of these requirements, but achieving these standards on a farm of sufficient size to satisfy the 4.8 million donkey skins needed per annum to meet current demand for ejiao would be impossible. The space alone needed to supply another 300,000 would take an area half that of the Maasai Mara national game reserve (371,200 acres or almost 600 square miles in total).

A 2017 study conducted by Brooke revealed that significant welfare violations result from the transportation of live donkeys for trade, with self-mutilation, kick injuries and 10% of donkeys suffering bite wounds or dying in transit.

A threat to human health 

Animal and human health risks are an issue too. The long distance travel for a large number of donkeys required for large-scale breeding carries a huge risk of disease outbreak. Donkeys currently being moved across Africa are reported to be in overcrowded transportation over hundreds of miles. And in 2019, Brooke witnessed an outbreak of equine flu in West Africa that killed 60,000 donkeys in Niger alone. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) believes that it was linked to illegal transport of animals across borders.

The economic argument

The article in Kenya News also argued that the ban has rendered many jobless and left the ‘once vibrant town’ of Mogotio, home to Goldox Donkey Abattoir, a ‘pale shadow of its former self’. This dramatic imagery neglects to consider that when the trade was fully operational it fuelled donkey theft and sale in surrounding regions which impoverished owners, depriving them of their only means to earn a livelihood.

In 2018 Brooke commissioned research to analyse the economic impact of the trade which found that whilst the trade provided a short term benefit in terms of a cash injection, the loss of a donkey forces farmers to resort to more costly or less efficient alternatives, making them vulnerable to poverty.

Research by the government’s Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) also found that, when taking into account the lifetime value of owning a donkey, farmers lost Sh11,390 per month for every working donkey that it sold for slaughter due to the life-long value of these animals. Between April 2016 and December 2019, farmers are projected to have lost Sh28.3 billion.

So, rather than the ban depriving locals of their livelihoods, it was the trade itself that had a greater impact, when it was legal.

The simple truth 

All this evidence points to the simple fact that breeding donkeys is not a quick-fix nor a long term solution to Kenya’s ejiao problem. Lifting the ban on the trade in donkey skins would have serious consequences for donkey owning communities, farmers, the Kenyan economy and animal welfare.

The Kenyan government must stick to its guns, defend and ultimately enforce this vital ban on the trade in donkey skins.