How did a popular period drama on Chinese TV help lead to the theft and brutal slaughter of millions of donkeys in Africa?
It all started when fans of the show “Empresses in the Palace” saw the aristocratic characters using a traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao, which is made from donkey skin, Simon Pope, who works for U.K.-based charity the Donkey Sanctuary, told VOA.
“It was all set in the (Chinese) imperial court and at a certain time of the day the ladies of the court would all say, ‘Let’s have some ejiao,’” said Pope. Ejiao, also called donkey glue, is used as medicine or as a tonic for health and beauty in China.
“As a result of this program the demand for ejiao just literally went through the roof,” he said of the show first broadcast in 2011. “The problem was China simply does not have enough donkeys to be able to meet demand.”
The Chinese started looking for donkeys abroad, particularly in Africa where they’re used as a beast of burden by rural communities from Mali to Zimbabwe to Tanzania. When locals didn't want to sell, thefts started, with distressed farmers finding their precious donkeys skinned and left to rot on the veld.
China needs about 5 million donkeys a year to produce and meet the demand for ejiao, and about 2 million of these come from China’s own population of the animals. Of the remaining 3 million or more sourced abroad, the Donkey Sanctuary estimates that between 25% and 35% are stolen.
Now, years into the trade, populations are down, and some African countries are fighting back. Tanzania last month banned donkey slaughter for the skin trade, saying the country's donkey population was at risk of becoming extinct. Other African countries including Nigeria have also introduced bans on donkey slaughter or exports of the animal.
“I think the message that’s going to China, from Africa in particular, is that our donkeys are too valuable an asset to have them skinned and shipped off to China to have them made into medicine. Our donkeys are not for sale,” said Pope. However, he noted that because of China's economic clout on the continent and massive investment in infrastructure, other nations are loath to push back against the trade.
South Africa allows the butchering of donkeys but only at two licensed slaughterhouses and with a quota of 12,000 a year. Authorities here have been cracking down on the illegal trade in recent years, so criminal syndicates have gone underground, especially since COVID, said Grace de Lange, an inspector with the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) in South Africa.
Now South African donkeys are being smuggled into Lesotho, a tiny mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa.
“We are not sure exactly what the link is and how they’re getting it out – maybe easier from Lesotho,” she told VOA.
“We’ve had meetings with (the) government in Lesotho and they’re also investigating. … It’s going to the Chinese market,” she said, adding that authorities have also intercepted skins in warehouses and at the airport.
While small-time local criminals have been prosecuted after being arrested transporting the animals, the Chinese running the large syndicates are usually harder to get to, de Lange says.
Marosi Molomo, director of livestock services at Lesotho's Ministry of Agriculture, responded to VOA's questions about the donkey trade moving to Lesotho via text message saying: "It's not possible to give an answer without evidence."
Requests for comment from the Chinese embassies and consulates in both Lesotho and South Africa went unanswered.
De Lange said the animals are often slaughtered in a particularly cruel way. They are stunned with hammers or have their throats slit but are sometimes still alive when skinned.
“They’d actually been slaughtered in the most horrific manner,” she said.
Francis Nkosi, who works on a farm outside Johannesburg caring for some of the donkeys rescued from the skin trade, explained why the animal is so vital in Africa’s rural areas.
“Donkeys in our culture, they’re like transport. They help us,” he said as he fed fresh hay to Oscar and Presley, two of his charges who were rescued – in terrible condition – by the NSPCA last year on their way to slaughter across the border in Lesotho.
“If people get sick sometimes, we don’t have a car. We don’t have a transport. You can use the donkeys to transport some people to the hospital,” he added.
De Lange said she’s seen that donkey “numbers are dwindling” in the rural communities where she works and, for Pope, one major concern is how losing their donkeys has socioeconomic effects for many.
In some countries, “children had been pulled out of school and they were having to do the work previously the donkey was having to do,” Pope said.
While some argue Africa should set up donkey farms and benefit financially that way, Pope points out that China has tried mass farming the animals and been largely unsuccessful. Unlike other farm animals, donkeys can only produce one foal a year.
Ejiao has been used as medicine for the last two millennia, and in modern-day China it is available in various edible forms intended to aid circulation and help with aches and pains.
“Demand for donkey glue in China has affected communities halfway across the globe,” according to an article about the product in China’s state publication China Daily.
“The issue is sensitive, simply because some of these countries depend on the donkey as a working beast in both agriculture and transportation,” it said. “But this is also the reality of a tightening global network of supply and demand, and the fearsome power of being one of the largest consumer markets on Earth.”
The donkey skin trade has also become a conduit for other criminal activity, according to an investigation by the Donkey Sanctuary and researchers at the University of Oxford published in May. The report found donkey skins easily available for purchase online and that websites selling the product were also often offering endangered wildlife for sale and even illicit drugs.
There is a "vast online network of organized criminals offering donkey skins for sale, often alongside other illegal wildlife products including rhino horns, pangolin scales, elephant ivory and tiger hides," the Donkey Sanctuary said.