May 30, 2024

Stream Health Care

It Looks Good On You

Millions of donkeys are being killed to make medicine that doesn’t work

3 min read

I am a sucker for doe-eyes and big ears. So for me, donkeys are the epitome of cuteness. I must admit that it was partly this cuteness that drew me into a fascinating but somewhat grisly story in which donkeys take centre stage.

It’s a story where cultures have clashed, some of the poorest communities have suffered and donkeys have been slaughtered in their millions. It’s centred on the strange and disastrous saga of the donkey skin trade, which is built on the demand for a traditional Chinese medicine.


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The situation got so dire that the number of donkey thefts began to rise rapidly and many African state leaders realised that demand for skins was decimating their donkey populations. This led to the African Union making the slaughter of donkeys for their skin illegal in February 2024.

The animals’ skins are imported to China in their millions, where they are used to make an ancient medicine called ejiao. It’s made by boiling down donkey skins, extracting the gelatin and making it into powder or liquid. 

The medicine dates back thousands of years and is believed to have numerous benefits, from promoting youthfulness to aiding sleep and boosting fertility. But although described in some of the earliest Chinese medical texts, belief in its value is cultural, rather than scientific.

Ejiao used to be the preserve of the elite, but increasing demand among the general population has led to the market increasing exponentially, rising from about $3.2bn (£2.5bn) in 2013 to about $7.8bn (£6.2bn) in 2020.

While it used to largely be produced from the skins of Chinese donkeys, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, says the number of donkeys in the country plummeted from 11 million in 1990 to just under two million in 2021.

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The animals are slow to breed and they don’t thrive in intensive farming situations, so keeping up with demand is difficult. This led to Chinese companies seeking skin supplies elsewhere, particularly in Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s working donkeys live.

In a recent report, the Donkey Sanctuary, which has campaigned against the trade since 2017, estimated that, globally, at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to supply it.

And there’s also a human cost to the trade – donkeys are relied upon to carry goods, water and people in poor, rural communities. Having one stolen can have a huge impact on people’s daily lives.

According to Dr Lauren Johnston from the University of Sydney, author of China, Africa and the Market for Donkeys, it’s women and girls who bear the brunt of the loss when a donkey is taken.

“Once the donkey is gone, the women basically become the donkey again,” she explains. “They lose income and time, and experience back pain. Girls often must drop out of school too. There’s a bitter irony in that, because ejiao is marketed primarily as a product that itself supports women’s health.”

Until the African Union ban, there was a grim tug of war over the African donkey trade – some countries banned it years ago while others embraced it. Meanwhile, it became a concern for public health officials and international crime investigators: research carried out at the University of Oxford has revealed that shipments of donkey skins tested positive for animal diseases and that skins have been used to traffic other illegal wildlife products.

But there is a chance now, for an industry that marketed itself so successfully that it depleted a continent’s donkey population, to modernise and legitimise the trade.

One solution that animal welfare campaigners are suggesting is cellular agriculture – growing donkey skin cells in laboratories.

Cells from a specific species of donkey can now be grown in bioreactors to make collagen. As ejiao requires only the protein contained in donkey skin, making that protein to order seems a far more sustainable and innovative way to supply that demand.

This could also help prevent the mass slaughter of countless animals. Donkeys have a value that isn’t equivalent to the protein content in their skin, or the cuteness of their faces. They have carried, pulled and helped humanity to build civilisations for millennia.

Perhaps we can take lessons from the international disaster of the skin trade to protect them for future generations.

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