Home OPINIONS Cosmetics, pharmaceutical industry driving donkey to extinction

Cosmetics, pharmaceutical industry driving donkey to extinction

Experts are raising concerns that the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry is driving the donkey into extinction. They warn that the misconceived notion driven by unproven myths from the East that products from donkeys help women stay young and are an aphrodisiac for men could see the “beast of burden” exterminated from the face of the earth.

The donkey has shaped the history of humankind, both as a source of power for farm work and of transportation in hard-to-reach areas. Studies have shown that the donkey was first domesticated more than 7000 years ago and by 5,000 B.C. the donkey domestication had taken root with the earliest donkeys being traded northward and westward to Egypt and Sudan.

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The equine animal was the first land-based mode of transportation of water and goods across a variety of environments. In Kenya, the donkey plays an important role in the agricultural economy and in the lives of pastoralists, potentially contributing to poverty reduction through income generation. “People keep donkeys to help get them out of poverty,” says Brooke East Africa, Regional Director, Dr. Raphael Kinoti

The donkey was gazetted in Kenya as a food animal in 1999 with the main aim being “to curb the bush slaughter, improve food security as well as stimulate an interest in donkey production,” he adds.

An increase in global demand for donkey meat and skin saw a drop in the population of donkeys especially in China from a population of over 11 million donkeys in the year 2000 to around 1.7 million in 2022, this corresponded with exponential growth in the middle class, giving rise to peculiar consumption patterns, that saw demand for products made from donkey skin rise, “people who have come out of poverty into the middle class with some growing very rich in big numbers, became consumers,” says Dr. Kinoti.

Donkey skin is used in the production of a Chinese product known as Ejiao or ‘donkey-hide glue’, it is a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. The collagen is extracted from donkey skin by boiling, it is then mixed with herbs and other ingredients to create products that consumers believe can treat a variety of conditions such as; bleeding, dizziness, insomnia, cure anaemia, dry cough, making candy and snacks, making of beauty products especially anti-aging cream and sex stimulating products that boost libido.

“The belief around this is that you take the products or you apply them, then they can make you look younger, but also for men, that it works on the libido and that you can be a better-performing man,” says Dr. Kinoti and adds, “some of the information may be true but lots of it has been proven to be untrue, but then, it is what it is.”

Studies have shown that the Ejiao industry has experienced significant growth with the annual production rising from 3,200 to 5,600 tonnes currently, which is an annual growth of over 20%. A phenomenal rise in production of over 160 percent was realised between 2016 and 2021, and it is projected that this could increase by 200 percent by 2027. Current figures indicate that the Ejiao industry requires a minimum of 5.9 million donkey skins annually, to keep up with the demand for products especially the anti-aging creams as well as the libido-boosting medicaments.

At the height of the donkey skin and meat exports, Kenya allowed the establishment of four donkey slaughterhouses in 2016 including; Goldox Kenya Ltd in Baringo County, Star Brilliant Donkey Abattoir in Nakuru County, Silzha Ltd in Turkana County and Fuhai Machakos Trading Co. Ltd in Kithyoko, Machakos County all which became operational in 2018.

Studies by Brooke East Africa and Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) indicate that Donkey slaughter in the export abattoirs employed about 700 laborers who earned a monthly wage of KES 8460 each. However, households that sold their donkeys earned KES 7,000 per donkey and lost a daily income of over KES 1,500 that would have been realized through using the donkey to perform various chores.

The downside to the Ejiao industry which mostly uses donkey skin to make beauty products and aphrodisiacs is threatening to wipe out the Beast of Burden as the rate of reproduction is lower than that of other livestock.

The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census put the donkey population at 1.8 million, 10 years later in 2019, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics revealed that the country’s donkey population had dropped to 1.17 million. Statistics inked in a report titled, “The Status of Donkey Slaughter in Kenya and its Implications on Community Livelihoods,” painting a grim picture, as the number of donkeys slaughtered was five times higher than the annual donkey population growth rate of 1.04%. This means, 301,977 donkeys, which represented 15% of the donkey population were slaughtered in the four export slaughterhouses at 1200 donkeys per day. It is this reality that triggered the government to ban the slaughter of the beasts of burden to stop the threat of their extinction which was projected to happen by 2023.

The anatomy of the female donkey also known as the Jenny, is unique in the sense that it has a complex digestive system unlike other ruminants, and a gestation period is between 11- 14 months, and after delivery, the jenny requires four years before it can reproduce.

During the African Union Summit in February this year, the export of donkey products from Africa was banned, however, this resulted in an increase in the black market trade of donkey meat and its by-products. Dr. Raphael Kinoti is now calling on African Union member states to follow through with the continental ban and put in place statutes that will enable countries to operationalize the ban.

He is also calling on the government to ban the issuance of local permits for the transportation of meat as this is allowing the illegal operators who carry out bush slaughter of donkeys and transport the meat to unintended markets such as eateries and butcheries in urban areas where consumers are always ready to buy the meat oblivious of the source.

If this peculiar consumption of products that are derived from donkey skin continues and the consumers continue to get value for money and enjoy the returns, the families losing their donkeys through theft or coercion are losing a daily income and being driven into higher levels of poverty. This is because the daily income of KES 1,500 that a family receives from using the donkey is lost.

Judith Akolo is a Science Journalist at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC)

Judith Akolo
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