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The world’s donkeys are threatened by demand for Chinese traditional medicine

Some 5 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to satisfy the demand of eijao, a gelatin-based traditional medicine. If this trend keeps up, more than half of the world’s donkeys could be killed over the next five years.

Image credits: Anthony Rae.

The pressure that traditional Chinese medicine puts on wild animals is well known. Over the years, the growth in demand for traditional Chinese medicine has grown substantially, putting emblematic species such as tigers at risk of extinction. It’s not just wild or exotic animals, though — Chinese medicine is also hitting closer to home, threatening some animals which are very familiar to us: donkeys.

The donkey population in Brazil has declined by 28% since 2007, for no apparent domestic reason. In other countries with large populations, such as Botswana and Kyrgystan, populations have dropped even more, by 37% and 53% respectively. There’s no domestic reason for this. Instead, the reason can be found in China, where donkey populations have dropped by as much as 76% since 1992.

Unable to satisfy its demand for donkeys, China has turned to other countries .

The donkey hide is used to make a type of gelatin — a key ingredient of eijao. Eijao has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, due to its alleged healing properties against conditions like anaemia and poor blood circulation. The scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited, at best.

Consumption of eijao has increased significantly as more and more of China’s population can afford it and still desires it. China is incapable of supplying sufficient donkeys, so it is ‘outsourcing’ them from underdeveloped areas in South America, Africa, and central Asia. According to a recent report by the Donkey sanctuary, this practice is decimating donkey populations all around the world, essentialy creating the biggest ever donkey crisis.

The practice is also brutal. Donkeys (including pregnant mares and foals) are taken (or, according to some reports, stolen) from communities which rely on the animals for their livelihoods. The donkeys are often transported on long and cruel journeys, without access to food or water. Broken limbs are a common sight on these journeys, and around 20% of the animals never make it to the destination.

Those who do, however, are subjected to even more suffering. Dragged by their ears and tails, often with severed limbs, the donkeys are taken to be slaughtered. Their skin is removed and the hide is used to make gelatin. For donkeys, which are often kept in inhumane conditions to start with, it’s an unworthy and undeserved end.

This issue is doubled by the fact that donkeys are very slow to reproduce. A donkey mare carries a foal for over a year and, in farming areas, their fertility rate is low to begin with.

The booming donkey skin trade has made things much worse, and driven up the price of donkeys. In Kenya, the price has doubled over 3 years ($107 to $214 between 2016-19). For a country in which wages can be as low as $220, it’s a lot of money, and owners are struggling to be able to keep their donkeys or purchase new ones.

This is a tragedy for the donkeys, as well as the 500 million people who rely on them — often in the most impoverished areas of the world. Some countries are trying to take action against this: 18 countries have taken legislative action against the donkey hide industry. However, even where donkey slaughter is banned, the law is difficult to enforce and the practice simply continues, or the donkeys are shipped abroad for slaughter. Studies have noted that donkey trade is threatening people’s livelihoods as well as causing a potential health crisis. “The need for an immediate ban on the donkey skin trade in Kenya became explicit,” one report notes.

The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) in the UK said it strongly condemned the practice and believed it was unethical and unnecessary in modern Chinese medicine. In the UK it is illegal for herbal practitioners to prescribe animal products. It advocates ethical plant-based alternatives or the use of beef, pork or chicken gelatin as a dietary food supplement instead.

Image credits: Tim Mossholder.

It’s unclear what effect the pandemic has had on donkey trade. China came under intense pressure to ban or at least curb its wildlife trade, which is one of the plausible causes of the ongoing pandemic. China has issued a ban on wildlife trade, but it’s not yet clear how strongly the ban is enforced — or whether donkeys fall under the ban. Technically speaking, donkeys aren’t regarded as ‘wildlife’.

Still, the pandemic seems to have swayed public opinion in China against wildlife trade, but the demand for traditional medicine continues to grow in China, at an accelerated rate of about 5% per year. As long as demand continues to grow and humane practices aren’t enforced, things will get worse before they get better.

The Donkey Sanctuary does not disregard the traditional importance of the donkey hide ingredient in Chinese cultural heritage. They are calling for the eijao industry to accelerate efforts and find sustainable alternatives, such as artificially grown donkey collagen. For now, the donkey crisis remains as bad as it’s ever been.

Wild donkeys and horses dig wells in the desert, help life thrive

Burros in Arizona. Credit: Bureau of Land Management.

The first horses and donkeys came to the Americas on ships during Christopher Columbus’ Second Voyage. Although they were essential to European colonization, the two animals are typically seen as invasive species that are not part of the local wildlife. But rather than harming other animals, wild horses and donkeys in North America may actually help local plants and animals thrive by digging deep wells that provide water in the desert.

The desert’s ecosystem engineers

Wild horses, known as mustangs, are often in the spotlight, but the wild burros of the American West can be just as fascinating. Burros, or wild donkeys, are originally from Africa and are members of the horse family, Equidae. Today, most wild burros reside in Arizona where they used to accompany explorers and pioneers on their treks throughout the West in their use as pack animals.

After the 19th-century gold mining boom ended, many donkeys escaped or were turned loose. But since they are naturally adapted to surviving under the harshest conditions, wild herds eventually formed and flourished — and it seems they weren’t alone.

While out in western Arizona as a field technician studying river systems, Erick Lundgren, now a biologist at the University of Technology Sydney, noticed how burros would dig deep wells to gain access to water. Later, other thirsty animals would profit.

Credit: E.J. Lundgren el al., Science.

Lundgren knew about African elephants and the wells they dig, which are sometimes the only source of water for other wildlife during the unforgiving dry season. Could this also be true in Arizona for burros and wild horses, another animal known for digging wells? That was an intriguing question, especially since most biologists class the two as “agents of biodiversity harm” simply because they are not native species in the region.

Over the course of three summers, Lundgren and colleagues surveyed sites in the Sonoran Desert, stretching across Arizona and California, following and recording various wild horses and donkeys. They also set up camera traps to learn how other animals were engaging with the wells.

Credit: E.J. Lundgren el al., Science.
Credit: E.J. Lundgren el al., Science.

The wells dug by the equids could be quite large, as deep as two meters (six feet). Soon after the wells were completed, the cameras caught various species flocking to the new water sources, including mule deer, bobcats, javelinas, coyotes, and Woodhouse’s scrub jay. Besides animals, the researchers also spotted river tree species sprouting from some of the wells, indicating their double role as plant nurseries.

“The donkey wells kept water in the system. And these features were used by pretty much every species you could picture, including some surprising ones like black bears, that we didn’t expect to see in the desert,” Lundgren told AP.

These wells were particularly populated during the hottest and driest parts of the summer, oftentimes being the only available water source for miles. As such, the authors of the new study published in Science describe the wild horses and donkeys as “buffers” against extreme variability of desert streams.

Invasive or enabling?

Considering the ecological value that these wells bring, the classification of the wild equids as ‘invasive biology’ may be worth reconsidering. After all, horses were actually native to North America until a mysterious extinction event 12,000 years ago. And as human activity increasingly affects perennial streams, either directly or due to climate change, the role of these horses and donkeys will become increasingly important to support these ecosystems.

Today fewer than 9,000 burros remain. Like their cousins the wild horses, burros in the Western United States have been rounded up en masse, often to make room for livestock grazing, big game hunting, and other commercial uses of public lands. May is Burro Awareness Month so we can take advantage of this opportunity to celebrate these steadfast and hardy icons of the American West.