Do donkeys go to heaven when they die? One would sure hope so, for when Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he was perched upon Equus asinus - the beast of burden.
All over the world, and unlike the lazy domestic cat and man’s so-called best friend, the good-for-nothing mongrel often only good at wagging the tail and barking its silly head off, the nondescript ass breaks its back for the poor; ferrying water in dry areas, transporting people and farm produce over long distances in punishing terrain and harsh environments, and earning its owner a regular income.
In Kenya, it seems the donkey is now the best thing since sliced bread. Headlines abound of donkeys slaughtered in Naivasha, donkey skeletons, donkey heads and donkey hooves found in bushes, donkey meat in butcheries... you name it.
But the mass slaughter (and theft) of donkeys is however not fuelled by demand for meat, but rather a surging new global craze for donkey skin, that is used for the manufacture of anti-ageing and libido enhancing drugs in China.
In 2018, it is estimated that close to 360,000 donkeys in the country were slaughtered for export to meet China’s demand for meat and skin.
Donkey advocacy groups further estimate that the numbers of legally slaughtered donkeys have risen to close to 1,000 per day in four slaughterhouses in the country, with reported cases of stolen donkeys rising to 4,000 in 2018.
“The craze for donkey products is hurtling out of control. The growing demand is insatiable and the number of donkeys being slaughtered legally is rising by day, while donkey theft is spiraling across the country,” Samuel Theuri, an advocacy officer at the Brooke East Africa says.
According to the organisation that promotes the welfare of donkeys in East Africa, the combined potential of the four donkey slaughterhouses in Kenya has almost doubled in two years.
“In 2017, it is estimated that over 100,000 donkeys were slaughtered across the country, but in 2018, the slaughterhouses expanded their capacities, taking in more donkeys for slaughter, which are sourced even from the neighbouring countries that have banned the trade,” Theuri said.
The trade, he says, has also fuelled cross-border theft of donkeys, especially along the Kenya-Somalia and Kenya-Uganda borders.
“The theft is fuelled by the rising prices in the Kenyan market and the ready market to satisfy the demand for export,” Theuri said.
Donkey skins and hides are used to manufacture Chinese traditional medicine. Donkey skins are believed to produce a medicinal gelatin known as ejiao that is traded as traditional Chinese medicine
History has it that over 2,000 years ago, ejiao was a preserve of emperors, believed to promote good health, long life and fertility. Currently, ejiao is used in medication for skincare and products that allegedly preserves youth and beauty. This has led to increased demand, which far outstrips supply.
According to Donkey Santuary, an international charitable organisation devoted to the welfare of donkeys, millions of donkeys are farmed for their skin to produce ejiao in China. The demand for the product, the organisation says, is insatiable, and has become a global trade.
“Research by The Donkey Sanctuary reveals a worrying trend in the growing trade and demand of donkey meat and skins, and its potential effect on global donkey populations and their welfare,” Donkey Sanctuary says. The demand for ejiao, the organisation adds, has dramatically increased in the last few years.
“There used to be around 11 million donkeys in China, but the number has dropped to 6 million in the last 20 years. Donkeys and donkey skins are now being imported from other countries, including those in Africa. Most of these are being bought and sold by dealers, but a significant number of donkeys are also stolen from their owners,” the organisation noted.
In the 2009 census in Kenya, the donkey population in the country was indicated as 1.9 million. However, animal rights groups warn that the unregulated slaughter, coupled with poor breeding of donkeys and high mortality rates, has resulted in rapid population decline.
Dr James Kithuka, a veterinary officer with Brooke East Africa, said donkeys are poor breeders and given the nature of their work, most donkeys rarely reproduce.
“While a female donkey matures at three years, getting pregnant will depend on the amount and nature of work they are being subjected to. After birth, it will take between three and four years to come on heat again and that is also dependent on the nature of work,” Dr Kithuka explained.
A donkey, he says, can live for up to 12 years and bear between one and two offspring in their lifetime. Working donkeys can sometimes end up with none.
Donkeys in desert areas can however live for up to 60 years.
“Donkeys are very poor breeders, they do not come on heat when they are under pressure or exposed to intense work. When pregnant, they miscarry easily when subjected to loads of work without proper diet,” he says.
In every 100 working donkeys in rural areas, 15 of their offspring are likely to die, compared to 25 out of 100 of working donkeys in urban centres.
Kithuka says the high infant mortality rates for donkeys in urban centres compared to those in rural areas is because most donkeys in towns are overworked.
Farming Systems of Kenya, another organisation involved in the welfare of donkeys, noted that the current slaughter of already shrinking population of donkeys remains unregulated and unsustainable and could impact negatively on the rural economy, as well as those who entirely depend on them in arid and semi-arid areas.
“The magnitude of slaughter remains high, with over 1,000 donkeys slaughtered on a daily basis within the major licensed abattoirs. Following the insatiable demand, outcry from theft cases have remained uncontrollable,” Dr Raphael Kinoti, the executive director of the organisation says.
Dr Kinoti says that the cost of owning a donkey locally has almost quadrupled since the first slaughterhouse opened its doors, making it difficult for communities whose livelihoods depend on the animal. The current surge in slaughter, he says, has also led to dwindling numbers in the existing the Maasai and Somali donkey breeds in the country.
“We are staring at a situation could see indigenous donkeys being wiped out because currently, the slaughter is unregulated, a matter that is exacerbated by the poor breeding of donkeys,” he added.
Hotspots that record high cases of donkey theft, according to Brooke East Africa, are Turkana, Machakos, Nakuru, Baringo and Narok counties.
He added that although the government had banned the licensing more donkey slaughterhouses in the country following the outcry, a new slaughterhouse was recently commissioned in Machakos.
Currently, he says, no mechanisms of increasing donkey population are in place despite the ban on trade in the neighbouring countries following the dwindling numbers and increased donkey theft cases.
Tunza Punda, a donkey advocacy group noted that the population of donkeys is low, and there is also very little research on donkeys.
“Their population is way below a million, given the fact that most donkeys are secured by their owners, hence denying them time to mate. The situation has lowered the reproduction rate,” Linus Mwirigi, the chairman of Tunza Punda said.