While other African countries are banning the export of donkey skins, Kenya is doing a brisk trade in the commodity so sought after in China. Gelatin from the skins is used in traditional Chinese medicine ejiao. So far, five countries in the world, four of them in Africa, have barred sales of donkey products out of concern that demand from Asia will quickly outstrip local supply.
Kenya, home to more than 1.8 million donkeys, vital as beasts of burden, doesn’t appear to be worried about that. Last year officials approved a $3 million donkey abattoir run by two Chinese entrepreneurs in Baringo county, northwest of Nairobi. It was the country’s second donkey slaughterhouse, after another built in Naivasha the year before. Today, it processes about 600 donkeys a day, from suppliers in Kenya as well as Tanzania.
Over the last two years, a global trade in donkey skins has emerged as ejiao has become popular among middle-class Chinese who prize it as an anti-aging agent, an aphrodisiac, a cure for insomnia or poor circulation, among other health benefits. At least 1.8 million donkey hides (pdf, p. 6) are traded a year, according to a report last month from the Donkey Sanctuary, a British nonprofit. China’s own donkey population has more than halved since the 1990s, which has increased global demand—estimated at 4 million skins a year, according to the group.
Other African countries are getting into the hide business—ejiao can sell for up to $360 per kg in China. Ethiopia, with the continent’s largest donkey population of 7.4 million, has built two large-scale, Chinese-owned slaughterhouses. Cases of illegal “bush slaughter,” where the animals are usually stolen, have been reported in Tanzania, Egypt, and South Africa and beyond.
The donkey trade in Africa threatens to raise prices of an animal that is crucial to the survival of many families, especially in rural areas. In Burkina Faso, one of two countries to ban exports last year, the cost of a donkey went up to £108 from £60 between 2014 and 2016, according to the Donkey Sanctuary.
It’s estimated that one donkey can support a family of six, according to Brooke, an equine welfare charity that spoke out last year against the growing abuse and theft of donkeys for export to China. In Kenya, where drought in several areas is expected to worsen, the situation is even more precarious for donkeys.
“Working donkeys are vital to people’s livelihoods here—they carry water and food for families, fuel and building materials. They help people earn the money they use to put food on the table and children in school,” said Dil Peeling, head of animal welfare and sustainability at Brooke.
Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.