Chinese demand for donkey skin threatens farmers in East Africa

John Nduhiu Kuiyaki, chairman of the Kamere Donkey Owners Association in Naivasha, Kenya. Photo by: Nita Bhalla / Thomson Reuters Foundation

NAIROBI — In recent years, smallholder farmers across Kenya have faced an unusual problem: They have awoken to find that during the night, their donkeys — essential for heavy labor — have been skinned by thieves, leaving only the carcasses behind.

Demand for donkey skin has risen in recent years, driven by its use in Chinese health products that claim to help with health issues such as preventing aging or increasing libido. Because China itself doesn’t have enough donkeys to meet the demand, large-scale slaughterhouses have been set up in Kenya, turning the country into a hub for the export of donkey skins.

“In the next five, 10 years we shall be talking about an animal that was called the donkey in Africa, especially in Kenya.”

— Mwangi Kiunjuri, cabinet secretary, Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture

As the price of skin has soared to hundreds of dollars, thieves are also stealing from farmers’ much-needed livestock.

“Donkeys are completely embedded in the livelihoods of smallholder farmers,” said Raphael Kinoti, CEO of Farming Systems Kenya, during the Conference on Africa’s Agricultural Productivity last week in Nairobi. “Since 2016, we’ve had a massive slaughter of donkeys… and it’s the farmers that are feeling the heat.”

Many advocates and researchers are now calling for a complete ban on the slaughter of donkeys in Kenya, arguing that when the slaughterhouses were licensed, there was not an adequate understanding of the impact it would have.

Dependence on donkeys

Across the African continent, smallholder farmers who can’t afford mechanized equipment use donkeys for the heavy lifting needed for cultivating land, transporting hay and silage, and hauling water and firewood.

“The donkey slaughter is causing a huge impact on livelihoods at the rural level.”

— Dr. Monicah Maichomo, director of the Veterinary Research Institute, Kalro

Smallholder farmers also use their donkeys — which have been shown to be more resilient during droughts than other livestock — as an extra source of income, Kinoti said, using them to carry goods such as construction materials for others in the community.

An estimated 10 million people in East Africa rely on donkeys to support their livelihoods, according to animal charity Brooke, which found that each donkey generates an average of $110 per month for the families that use them. It estimates that more than 300,000 donkeys have been slaughtered in Kenya since 2016, or 15% of the country’s donkey population. That has cost about 28 billion Kenyan shillings ($273 million) in lost income — 15 times the gross revenue generated from the export of donkey meat and skin.

Advocates believe that the scale of donkey slaughter in Kenya is the largest on the African continent. Ghana has also drawn criticism for leading the donkey skin trade in West Africa.

“The donkey slaughter is causing a huge impact on livelihoods at the rural level,” said Dr. Monicah Maichomo, director of the Veterinary Research Institute at the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization, Kalro. “In rural places where there is no motorized transport or roads, communities still depend on the donkey.”

In China, donkeys are in demand for another reason. The gelatin made by boiling their skin is used to make a traditional medicine called “ejiao,” which sells for about $783 per kilo. Demand for the medicine requires up to 4.5 million donkey skins per year, according to Samuel Theuri, advocacy and innovations advisor at Brooke East Africa.

As China’s own donkey population has rapidly decreased in recent years to meet the demand, four Chinese-owned slaughterhouses were licensed in Kenya, beginning in 2016, which now kill an estimated 1,000 donkeys per day. The Chinese government also cut import taxes on donkey skins the following year.

A key issue is that unlike other types of livestock, it is not easy to mass breed donkeys. No country in the world has been successful at doing this, Kinoti said, because they have high rates of miscarriage and low rates of conception and birth.

“China has tried every sort of technology to multiply their donkeys and it’s just not happening,” he said. “That’s why they’ve come to Africa to slaughter our donkeys.”

Currently, the rate of donkeys slaughtered in Kenya is 5% annually, while the population growth rate is only 1%.

A recent analysis published by Kalro estimated that if current trends continue, the donkey population in Kenya could be wiped out by 2023.

Theft and cross-border smuggling

According to Chinese state-run media, the price of a full donkey skin in China has risen from $32 in 2000 to $435 in 2017. The rise in demand has been linked to the rise of the middle class in China, as well as an increase in consumer perception of the effectiveness of the medicine.

As the price of donkey skin has risen, thieves have begun targeting smallholder farmers in rural Kenya, often slaughtering the donkey in the bush. Some farmers are selling donkeys in anticipation of them being stolen.

“The loss emanating from theft or sale of donkeys render the owners jobless as they are robbed of the most important ‘tool’ necessary for income generation,” according to Brooke.

Over 4,000 donkeys were reported stolen between 2016 and 2018, Maichomo said, according to her own research — but these numbers are likely an underestimate because they don’t account for stolen donkeys not reported.

In response, impacted rural communities have organized night patrols to guard their donkeys, and search parties when they go missing, Kinoti said. They’ve also organized protests to bring attention to the issue and demand that the government stop licensing slaughterhouses.

In addition, there are concerns that slaughter bans in surrounding countries, such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, have led to people smuggling donkeys for slaughter in Kenya. Donkeys with fur patterns that don’t match those seen in Kenya have been found in the slaughterhouses, according to Kinoti. There have also been incidences where trucks of donkeys are found in Tanzania en route to the Kenyan border, Maichomo said, adding that while laws on the importation of animals exist, they are not properly enforced.

“One of the challenges we have is cross-border diseases,” Kinoti said. “Could this attract diseases that also end up killing these animals in masses?”

A national ban on slaughter

Advocacy organizations and researchers are calling for a ban on the slaughter of donkeys in Kenya. Several African nations have already done this, including Botswana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Senegal.

That comes down to Mwangi Kiunjuri, cabinet secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, who has the power to implement a ban. Kiunjuri told attendees at last week’s agriculture conference to help him do so.

“In the next five, 10 years we shall be talking about an animal that was called the donkey in Africa, especially in Kenya,” he said. “I hope that one of the solutions is to give me power, although I have the power, to ban.”

Brooke’s Theuri interpreted this as an invitation for researchers and non-profit organizations to provide him with the evidence to justify a ban to the rest of the government and to Kenya’s citizens.

“The licensing of slaughterhouses [is] not just an economic question. It is also a political question that needs to be answered,” Theuri said.

But that may not happen soon. In July, the Kenyan government signed a deal with the Chinese government on the export of donkey skins.

"This deal was basically a show by both governments to provide conducive environments for the trade for up to five years, where Kenya will supply the Chinese market with donkey hide," said Lyne Iyadi, a communication officer at Brooke East Africa. “It’s more like a political endorsement of the trade.”

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.