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The donkey skin trade has rapidly expanded over the last few years due to a huge demand for a traditional Chinese medicine known as ‘ejiao’, which is a combination of herbs and gelatin from donkey skin. Currently, it is estimated that nearly two million donkey skins are traded each year globally for this purpose, with the actual demand estimated to be double this. China is the main consumer of this product but markets in other countries are emerging. Given this high demand, the value and price of donkeys has increased substantially, leading to illegal activities with suppliers sourcing donkeys from wherever they can. As a consequence, donkeys are being mustered, stolen, traded and slaughtered (often inhumanely) all over the world, with some donkey populations declining rapidly as a result.
In 2017, the Donkey Sanctuary, a UK-based donkey welfare organisation, published a comprehensive review of the trade which described the donkey skin trade as a human and animal welfare crisis (1). Thousands of villagers in Africa who rely upon their donkeys to cart water and other goods now face severe hardship due to donkey theft. In response, several countries have taken action to stop the trade with bans in place in Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegar, and recently Ethiopia closed its only operational slaughterhouse. And in 2015, Pakistan became the first Asian country to ban the export of donkey hides.
The high demand for donkey skins has led feral donkeys in Australia being considered as a potential source of skins. Although feral donkeys are classified as a pest animal and reported to occur in high numbers in parts of northern Australia, current population estimates are difficult to obtain, raising doubts over the viability of establishing an industry relying upon an accessible supply of donkeys. In addition, there is little recent evidence quantifying the level of damage that donkeys pose to justify their mass removal for slaughter. Currently, the main method used to control feral donkeys is in situ aerial shooting, but because the gelatin obtained from donkey skin is destined for human consumption, donkeys intended for this purpose must be killed at an accredited abattoir.
As the donkey skin trade is such a lucrative market, other options being considered include live export and farming of donkeys.
Mustering, transporting, slaughtering or live export of feral donkeys all pose significant animal welfare risks. Donkeys require special handling and can be extremely resistant to being moved or loaded. Donkeys also require a higher standard of care compared to routinely farmed species such as sheep or cattle, including the need for regular dental, coat and hoof care. There are also concerns that as the required product is extracted from the skin, donkeys will not be provided with the same level of care and nutrition required for meat-producing animals.