Gulsumoh Sharbatova hasn't seen her donkey for nearly two months, which normally wouldn't be cause for alarm. But that was before reports emerged that donkeys in Tajikistan were turning up dead, their skinned and hoofless carcasses hastily discarded and left to rot.
"I didn't pay attention to it at first," says the housewife from Bulakdasht, a village in the southern Khatlon province. She explains that locals in the mountainous region commonly let their donkeys roam free to graze when there is no work for them to do. But now, with the arrival of spring planting season, Sharbatova has her son checking area livestock markets in the hope the animal might turn up.
The worst-case scenario is that the animal has already fallen prey to traders selling donkeys, their meat or other products to buyers in China, where a there is a dwindling donkey population and a booming market for the beast of burden. Particularly sought-after are donkey hides, which are used in Chinese alternative medicines.
The issue first caught the attention of the public and the authorities in January, when a video was posted on the Internet that appeared to show the carcasses of donkeys — skinned and with their hooves cut off — dumped near a river in the northern province of Sughd.
Police task force
Other incidents followed, including trucks carrying dozens of donkeys being stopped at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, fueling rumors that donkey meat was being illegally sold in Tajikistan. That led to the establishment of a police task force to look into the matter.
The investigation found that donkey hides processed in Tajikistan were, in fact, being transported by private traders to China via Kyrgyzstan, according to Tajikstandard, a state agency that regulates the safety and quality of consumer goods.
The news helped quash the rumors that the meat was entering the local food chain, something that would not sit well in a country where eating donkey meat is considered taboo and against Tajik Islamic practice. But concerns about public health and the humane treatment of animals remain, and authorities have found that they are ill-equipped to stop what appears to be a growing trade.
In the absence of laws preventing the sale of donkey hides, hooves or other parts, police and inspectors often rely on violations of sanitary or other regulations to hamper potentially dodgy dealings.
According to Sughd chief prosecutor Habibullo Vohidov, police have established that a private leather factory in northwestern Mastchoh district was involved in processing donkey hides. The practice is not illegal, however, and the head of the company involved was fined for violating sanitary and veterinary regulations.
When a truck carrying 130 donkeys was stopped early this year in the northern district of Ghafurov, it was confiscated and its driver detained for lack of official permission from the state veterinary regulatory agency to transport the animals. In a similar case, three Tajik drivers were detained at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border in January while transporting 120 donkeys, according to the veterinary regulatory agency.
And, after a source close to a police investigation told RFE/RL's Tajik service that officers in the Ghafurov district village of Chashmasor recorded the slaughter and skinning of more than 40 donkeys in January, they had to wait to act.
"We will take measures against the perpetrators once we establish elements of crime and the violation of laws," prosecutor Habibulloh Vohidov told reporters when queried about the case recently.
Calls for laws
According to Bakhtiyor Nasrulloev, a Sughd-based lawyer, Tajik law bars the killing of endangered animals. But that certainly doesn't pertain to the country's ubiquitous domesticated donkeys, which reportedly number more than 185,000 and are commonly used in rural areas to work fields or to transport produce, firewood and drinking water.
In lieu of laws specifically banning the killing and skinning of donkeys, or the processing of their meat or body parts for trade, new laws prohibiting cruelty to animals could help stop people from practicing in the trade.
The lawyer is not alone in calling for preventative measures. In January, the state veterinary regulatory agency sent a letter to Deputy Minister Mahmadtoir Zokirzoda, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL's Tajik service. After listing a number of incidents involving the killing and skinning of donkeys in the letter, the agency called on the government to do more to bring those responsible to justice and to ban or impose regulations on the backroom industry.
The letter said the agency had received "numerous written and verbal requests from Tajik and foreign citizens to obtain licenses for the establishment of businesses for the collection of donkeys, for donkey slaughterhouses, and for the export of donkeys."
However, the agency added, it considers such requests unacceptable "given the problems faced" in the countries where such requests have been granted.
The letter appeared to be alluding to Tajikistan's eastern neighbor, China, where gelatin rendered from donkey hides is used for an alternative medicine called ejiao and donkey hooves are used in the food industry, according to the Donkey Sanctuary, a British charity group devoted to the welfare of donkeys.
The letter concludes: "We respectfully ask you to inform the Tajik government, the governors of Sughd and Khatlon provinces, the Interior Ministry, and the state security committee to take preventative measures and bring to justice the perpetrators."
Government agencies contacted by RFE/RL said that they were studying the situation, and that investigations were continuing.
RFE/RL's Tajik service obtained a copy of an official letter in which the government instructed a number of state agencies to study the issue and report back. The government also said that Prime Minister Qohir Rasulzoda as well as a legal adviser to the president, Mahmadali Vatanzoda, were to be briefed on the situation.
Reining in business?
In the meantime, the market price for donkeys has doubled — or even quadrupled — over the past year in Tajikistan, where villagers say they have noticed an unusual and totally unexpected rise in demand for the animals.
"Buyers tell us that they are purchasing the donkeys for slaughter to ship their skin to China," says Sharif Nazarov, a resident of the northern village of Basmanda. Nazarov says a young, healthy donkey can currently fetch nearly $240, compared with $120 a year ago.
The increasing demand for ejiao in China has reportedly prompted a price hike as well as the illegal slaughter of the animals in several countries across the world, including some impoverished African countries, according to the Donkey Sanctuary.
Tajikistan's own dire economic situation — the Central Asian country is one of the poorest in the world, with a per capita gross domestic product of only about $3,000 and about 36 percent of its population beneath the poverty line — leads some to question why the government would shut the door on an opening market.
Safar, a resident of the southern Vakhsh region who didn't want to give his full name, is one of them. The owner of two donkeys suggests that the authorities should legalize the trade of donkeys or related products to provide a source of income for villagers desperate to find jobs.
"Livestock, such as cows and sheep, are a source of income for people," Safar says. "If there is a market for donkeys, farmers should use it as an opportunity to generate income."
Meanwhile, back in the mountainous village of Bulakdasht, Sharbatova is fretting about her own livelihood.
"The farming season has begun and we need the donkey more than ever," she says.
RFE/RL Tajik service correspondent Orzu Karim contributed to this report