While it was initially thought that donkeys in Tanzania were being killed for their meat for export to China, a global investigation by Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper has revealed that the asses were actually being butchered for their hides.
According to the investigation, Tanzania is one country recently targeted by China. Only last week, 24 donkey carcasses were found in a remote bush forest in the country.
They had been injected with poison before they were skinned. All the animals were owned by Maasai subsistence farmers who depend on them to survive.
“We believe criminals killed these animals by injecting them with a drug,” said Johnson Lyimo, director of the Meru Animal Welfare Organisation (MAWO) in Arusha.
He added: “It is very difficult to catch those responsible because they operate in rural areas. To find these donkeys, my team and I had to drive 30 miles out into the bush and then walk another five miles to the forest where the slaughter was done.”
“We know they are injecting them, because there is no sign of fatal wounds. They have cut only near the hooves for skinning.”
“But we don’t know the chemical they are injecting. All we can say is it must be very dangerous because no hyena, no kind of bird – not even an insect – is feeding on the meat they left behind. The skins will have been exported to China.”
Lyimo said despite their price increasing drastically, the Maasai people don’t sell the donkeys to the slaughter gangs.
“The communities know the importance of donkeys to their families,” he noted.
“They are everything – especially for their women. They provide the women’s transport. Families will now have to walk many miles to market and their children will not manage to get to school because they will need to walk to fetch water to help their parents,” he added.
He said MAWO had received funds from the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon to build ten community shelters where the Maasai can keep the animals safe at night.
“This is a very big challenge for the local people. They cannot afford to buy replacement donkeys because the Chinese trade has pushed the price so high,” he noted.
Several African governments are already taking action to ban the export of donkey skins from their countries. Burkina Faso in August banned the export of donkey skins as a sharp increase in sales to Asia threatened the animal's population.
Donkeys have been "over-exploited" and their numbers need to be kept at a sustainable level, the country’s government said. China is a big importer of donkey skins from Burkina Faso, using them to make traditional medicines.
In September, Niger also banned the export of donkeys, warning that a three-fold increase in trade, mainly to Asian countries, is threatening its donkey population.
The donkeys are being slaughtered for Chinese-made ejiao, a supposedly youth-preserving gelatin found in their skin.
Every week, thousands more donkey hides arrive in Dong’e, northern China – the epicentre of an appalling multi-billion-pound industry built on vanity and superstition – from all over the world.
The boss of one factory boasted that he sold £140 million of ejiao products last year.
“Our only concern is that one day soon there won’t be any more donkeys left to kill,” he said. Tragically, he wasn’t exaggerating.
For centuries seen as symbols of peace and humility, donkeys are being massacred across the world with industrial callousness.
At least 10,000 men and women are employed in the Dong’e factories, where skins are boiled and liquefied to make health snacks, powders and face creams that Chinese people believe are the key to long life and lasting beauty.
There is no medical evidence to support this belief.
The investigation found the industry, enthusiastically promoted by its government, has halved China’s donkey population. But as the numbers dwindle, so the trade now threatens donkeys across every continent.
Donkeys no older than three are being culled in their millions in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East and their hides exported to feed China’s insatiable appetite for ejiao.
Mike Baker, chief executive of the Donkey Sanctuary which is closely monitoring the situation, said: ‘Suddenly we’re seeing an incredible demand. In Africa alone, the numbers could run into millions.”
“As an example, in Burkina Faso - which has banned the trade - 65,000 a year are still being killed illegally,” he said.
The value of a donkey has rocketed from £50 a decade ago to £250 today as Chinese customers pay up to £200 a month for ejiao.
As well as preserving youth, it is said to improve circulation and sex drive and makes workers indefatigable.
In sickening scenes in Dong’e, where more than 100 factories produce ejiao, witnesses saw hundreds of donkey skins from South Africa being unloaded from a lorry by forklift truck and a donkey casually butchered on a street corner as locals ambled by.
China’s biggest ejiao factory Shandong Dong’e Ejiao (DEEJ), which processes a million donkey hides a year, is negotiating to breed and kill donkeys in Australia and has set up a farm on the outskirts of Dong’e with 10,000 animals to breed, kill and skin.
The craze is driven by a potent mix of snobbery, superstition and state propaganda. A traditional medicine for nearly 2,000 years, ejiao was once made exclusively for Imperial China’s royal families and, later, Chairman Mao and the Communist elite.
Today, China’s burgeoning middle classes are clamouring for ejiao, which is officially promoted under President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic policy to develop the country’s traditional medicine market.
Ejiao sales went into overdrive in China following a national TV advertising campaign promoting it in 2010.
The mythology surrounding the elixir dictates that the donkey skins can only be boiled during the winter months, with ejiao made during the three-day Chinese Winter Solstice the most valued with a 250g (8.8oz) slab made then fetching £2,560.
One saleswoman said: “When a man takes ejiao, he will be strong and virile and have a long life. When a woman takes ejiao, she will keep her youth and become as beautiful as a princess.”
Another official at an ejiao factory said: “If you sell ejiao to farmers in the countryside, they can work all day without getting tired.”
“We give two boxes a month to each of our workers and it makes them work faster all day long.”
Countries across Africa have seen an exponential increase in the export of donkey hides. In Egypt, the price of donkeys has risen from £17 to £170, according to research by the Donkey Sanctuary. And in South Africa, the scale of the problem has emerged only in recent months.
Nadia Saunderson, outreach officer for the Highveld Horse Care Unit near Johannesburg, said demand for ejiao in China had triggered ‘a huge explosion in illegal slaughter’.
“In one recent incident in the Free State, we were tipped off by a registered abattoir,” Saunderson said. “Our inspectors went to a location out in the bush and rescued 56 emaciated donkeys. They were in the process being cruelly slaughtered. Those responsible are unquestionably serving the Chinese medicine business. They are interested only in the skins.”
Saunderson compared the trade to the poaching of rhino horns and abalone – a protected sea snail once prolific in South African waters.
“We believe donkey skins may even be smuggled out of the country in the same consignments as abalone,” she said. It is a massive business. The slaughter of donkeys is having the same effect on their population in rural African communities as the poaching of rhino horn on rhinos.’