How much is that donkey?

There are good reasons why many countries have outlawed the Chinese donkey-skin trade, an international organisation says.

14 September 2017 | Agriculture

An international organisation that has studied the impact of the donkey skin trade globally warns that donkey slaughterhouses could decimate Namibia's donkey population within three years and further impoverish struggling communities dependent on the animals.

The Donkey Sanctuary UK, which has conducted investigations in at least 40 countries for the past three years, warned that legalising the donkey skin trade would inevitably lead to a robust black market fuelled by rising donkey prices, which in turn would quicken the decline of the population in Namibia.

This week, Alex Meyers, head of programmes at the Donkey Sanctuary, who is in Namibia as part of a delegation holding “crisis talks” with various stakeholders on the issue, said legalising the trade could open a Pandora's Box of long-lasting problems for the country and its communities.

Meyers, at a presentation on Tuesday, hosted by the Namibia Scientific Society in Windhoek, said plans to open at least two Chinese-operated slaughterhouses should be put on ice.

He recommended a comprehensive study of the impacts on Namibians and Namibia as the first step before deciding on the way forward.

In the publication 'Under the Skin', issued by the Donkey Sanctuary, the authors warn that “the trade in donkey skins and meat is a growing concern in terms of animal welfare, public health and economic, social and cultural stability.”

The authors add that developing countries “in which communities have a heavy reliance on donkeys as working animals” are particularly vulnerable.

Gold rush

Many describe the surge in donkey skin black markets, once trade is legalised, as similar to a gold rush, considering the steep increase in the value of donkeys and their skins.

In Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, the demand for donkeys led to a steep increase of donkey prices within a few months, from roughly N$1 040 per donkey to N$1 900, leading to a surge in poaching and illegal slaughtering.

The creation of a black market in donkey skins will be further enabled by Namibia's already well-oiled poaching and smuggling networks of rhino horn, elephant tusks and pangolin scales.

A recent statement issued by the Donkib Ge Cultural Group in Namibia urged the government to halt all plans for donkey abattoirs until sufficient research is done on the trade and its impacts.

Abner Axel Xoagub warned that Namibia's donkeys are vital to communities and “without donkeys, the communities will be dormant, stagnant and poor.”

Xoagub said that Namibia does not currently have any legal framework in place to protect and facilitate the registration of donkeys and it could be “highly risky and counterproductive” for the agriculture sector when mass donkey harvesting begins.

And while many African countries have abruptly banned the trade in the past year for a number of reasons, including Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Botswana, researchers say once the trade has taken hold, it is close to impossible to clamp down on the black-market trade.

Niger's government last year announced a ban after officials discovered that 80 000 donkeys were sold in the first nine months of 2016, compared to 27 000 in 2015. The government warned that the donkey population was facing extinction there and a ban was the only option.

In Kenya, communities took to the streets recently to call on the government to ban the trade following a dramatic decline in the donkey population there.

A huge cost for communities

Meyers warned that “when all factors are taken into account, the donkey population in Namibia would likely disappear in three years”, based on current plans by two Chinese companies to slaughter at least 70 donkeys per day.

Namibia's donkey population is currently estimated at around 160 000, and with two slaughterhouses operating, if plans in Outjo and Okahandja go ahead, the decline of donkey numbers would be dramatic and quick.

Meyers explained that during his work investigating the trade, he has been surprised by the number of sectors, including livelihoods, women, pollution, water and more, that are threatened when the trade takes hold.

Meyers noted that the donkey skin trade is not sustainable in terms of supply without impacting communities, the animals and other sectors, as has been the case in other countries supplying China's insatiable demand for skins.

The trade currently provides about two million skins annually to China, while the demand for donkey skins for the production of ejia, a traditional medicine, is between 4 and 10 million.

Meaty issues

In Namibia, further concerns have been raised that the plan by Fu Hai Trading Enterprise to slaughter cattle in the same abattoir as the donkeys could potentially harm Namibia's reputation in several export sectors.

At Meyer's presentation this week, a former state veterinarian shared her concerns that the slaughtering of donkeys at the same facilities as cattle could be problematic.

Another cause of concern is that many countries place high standards on the humane treatment of animals at slaughterhouses, as part of their import conditions.

The donkey skin industry is notorious for the high number of reported cruelty cases, which, in some cases, led to the ban of the industry, as was the case in Botswana recently.

Meyers said that the welfare needs of donkeys are unique to the species, and that investigations have seen that between eight and ten donkeys die daily at legal slaughterhouses due to the stress of the transport, handling, captivity, lack of food and water and several other issues.

He explained that the trade does not “incentivise” the welfare of the animals, because the skin is the main product and the condition of the animals matters little.


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