Equine welfare assessment in Pakistan coal mines

In 2014 Brooke undertook an assessment of several coal mine sites in Choa Saidan Shah in Pakistan, interviewing donkey owners and other mine workers.

Donkeys working at a Pakistan coal mine


Coal mines in Pakistan

A coal mine usually operates with a mine owner, a manager, an electrician, a person in charge of organising labour called 'mat', equine owners, drivers and a watchman. The 'mat' is responsible for the provision of donkeys and for setting labour rates for the mine. Rates for carrying coal are fixed per ton and vary from mine to mine. Typical rates are 1100-1500PKR (approximately £6-£9) per ton, depending on quality and depth of mine - some mines go as deep as 8,000 feet.

A typical coal mine is around five foot by five foot wide at the entrance. Inside, the roof and walls are supported with the help of wooden planks. Air is provided every 40 to 50 feet through tunnels dug into the rock. Some mines have a standby generator to provide electricity.

Donkey owners work in teams of four - two dig the coal, one loads the coal on to a pack donkey and the fourth leads the donkey out of the mine and unloads. A small number of mines use a generator-powered trolley system known as 'haulage', but this is only effective in mines with a steep slope.

Life in the coal mines

Life is hard for mine workers and equines alike. Most owners live nearby in huts or abandoned mine sites. They work at the mines for six to 12 months, visiting their families just once or twice a year for festivals such as Eid.

The mines are far away from towns and other amenities so it's difficult to buy routine items such as food and medicine. At such high altitudes, drinking water is scarce for both people and animals. The mine owner is responsible for providing drinking water for the workers which must be brought up from the city in tanks, usually three to four times a day.

The working day lasts for eight to 10 hours and the donkeys usually work without drinking water. The donkey mortality rate is high - in each coal mine area, between four and seven donkeys perish in the summer, often from heat stress or suffocation in the intense heat of the mines. Winter can be even more difficult as donkeys suffer from heat injury and muscular cramps due to the extreme changes in temperature. Around five to 10 in each area do not survive the winter.

The local environment in Choa Saidan Shah

The area is 28km from Kallar Kahar and 32km from Chakwal City. There are currently no rail or airport facilities in the district. Landline and mobile telephone networks are, however, available.

There are approximately 8,610 equines in the Choa Saidan Shah and Dandot coal mine area, 97 percent of which are donkeys.

There are few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Choa Saidan Shah, Plan International is working in a small number of nearby villages, and there are some mine welfare organisations in the area but these are for the welfare of mine workers only. There is no other NGO working for the welfare of equines.

Services and healthcare

There is no farrier in the area because owners have no knowledge of hoof care or farriery needs of their animals. There are around 12 packsaddle makers and dealers who trade in packsaddles, panniers and accessories.

There are a number of government veterinary hospitals across Choa Saidan Shah. However, living and working in the hills means it's difficult for animal owners to reach these facilities. Similarly, government vets will rarely visit the coal mines due to their locations: coal mines are located uphill, and the steep roads are not easily accessibile by 2x4 vehicles. Coal mine inspectors pay routine visits and ensure protocols for the safety of the workers are being observed. The coal mine association has strict rules and policies for visitors.

Equine owners - knowledge, attitudes and practices

In addition to the welfare assessment, a knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) survey was carried out with equine owners to measure existing knowledge of basic equine management practices. Five focus group discussions were held with groups of eight to 10 owners, as well as in-depth interviews with another 13.

Grooming and hoof care

Owners did not know about the need for grooming or foot cleaning. It was not seen as important as the animals could work without it. Hooves were only picked when an animal started to limp. Similarly, owners do not trim hooves on a regular basis, but will sometimes cut them with a hoe, pick or axe when too overgrown.

Water awareness

Most owners were not aware they should offer water at least three times a day; twice a day was considered to be enough. There is a limited supply of water, which is brought from the city daily. Power shortages mean that sometimes everyone has to rely on the previous day's reserves.

Stable management

The majority of owners did not know about the importance of a proper resting place or of clean and dry animal housing. They were not aware of the adverse effects that damp and dirty surroundings can have on their animal's health, and none had ever cleaned their animal's housing. Existing animal housings did not offer protection from the elements.

Harness maintenance

Packsaddles are often a rough combination of hessian or gunny bags, old clothes and rubber panniers. Most owners did not know about the benefits of getting their packsaddles repaired before they became unusable, and few knew how to maintain them. The majority of owners did not know to store them away from dirt and the elements.

Heat stress management

Owners did not know the signs of heat stress, nor how treat it, such as by cooling the animal with water. In fact, most believed that cooling heat-stressed animals will make them worse or cause a fever. In extreme cases, they might call a vet, or simply leave the animal alone until it recovers - or perishes.

Wound management

Wounds were not considered a problem, even if bleeding. Owners did not know they should wash them or apply antiseptic ointment. Some had been spraying wounds with an unknown medicine, available locally for around 150 to 200 PKR (approximately £1).


The advantages of offering more than one type of feed, and of different feed ingredients, were not known. Owners were unaware they should clean the feed before giving it to their animal. They are currently feeding rice husk ('puk'), bought for 500 PKR (around £3) a bag which will feed five donkeys for a day. Owners are usally unable to afford higher quality feed such as wheat bran or grain, but some allow their animals to graze in the nearby mountains.

Other observations

Muzzle mutilation is a particular problem in the coal mines, as it is across Pakistan. The cruel and painful practice of slitting nostrils is believed by owners to help their donkeys breathe more easily.

Owners' earnings depend on the quality of the coal, but because this is not known until it reaches the surface, they may overload their animals to deliver as much usable coal as possible. A supply of good quality coal means owners can afford to buy better quality feed and their donkeys are loaded with less weight. If the coal is not good, donkeys will carry heavier loads and will be given poor quality feed.

Key findings

  • Equine owners in the area lack knowledge and skills in basic equine healthcare and management. The working environment is extremely difficult but suffering can be reduced through better practices.
  • There's a lack of access to vital equine welfare resources such as shelters, water, quality feed and grooming kits which is significantly affecting the health of working equines in the mines.
  • Service providers are generally not available. Packsaddle makers and saddlers are available but not adequately trained.
  • There are government vets in the area but they're out of reach of owners. Two senior vets, however, have received prior training from Brooke and are amenable to working with the team.
  • No other working equine welfare organisations are operating in the area, so there is a good opportunity for Brooke to make a difference.

How Brooke can help

  • Strengthen local service providers by training and connecting them to equine owning communities in the coal mines.
  • Develop a mechanism to monitor the performance of Brooke-trained local service providers and arrange follow-up visits to address any gaps in skills.
  • Build the capacity of owners and users in basic equine management to address the welfare issues of each individual coal seam.
  • Train community change agents and link them with coal mine communities. People working as 'mats' could be prospective change agents.
  • Provide emergency veterinary care until service providers have been trained by Brooke and can offer services which at least reach Brooke's minimum standards. A demand must also be created for these quality services at reasonable rates.
  • Raise awareness among coal mine communities of wider issues relating to working equines and help them to find a solution themselves - for example, a community savings fund, as they all share the same resources (they already have the option to contribute towards resources like shelters and water troughs) or a co-operative feed project, so they can buy quality grains at concessionary rates.

Animal welfare assessment data

A baseline assessment was carried out in three coal mines in Choa Saidan Shah. Key findings of the 63 donkeys assessed using the standardised equine-based assessment tool were:

  • 10 percent had lesions on their hindquarters
  • 19 percent had lesions on their breast or shoulder
  • 33 percent had lesions on their withers or spine
  • 49 percent were below body condition score 2*
  • 19 percent had slit nostrils
  • 14 percent suffered from eye problems
  • 37 percent displayed minor tethering/hobbling wounds
  • 79 percent display varying degrees of lameness

* Numerical scale used to evaluate amount of fat on an equine's body. Equines scoring 2 or below are considered thin or very thin.