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Society & Culture

China and Africa’s Vanishing Mammals: Part Three

May 20 , 2019
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

Asian demand for African wild mammals, as we saw in Parts One and Two, is strong. Asians covet African ivory and rhinoceroses’ horns, lion claws, pangolin scales, and many other animal parts so that they can be used to make traditional medicinal remedies – supposed cures for a range of maladies. Ivory is also desired for fine carvings. But Asians, particularly Chinese, also want Africa’s donkeys, the domesticated beast of burden. And they lust after donkeys to make elixirs to cure human ills.

Donkeys, the mainstay of rural transport in at least two-dozen countries across the continent, are now in high demand in China. There is widespread fear in a number of African countries that if Chinese merchants keep increasing the price of African donkeys, none will remain in five years or so. These are domesticated animals, but for centuries donkeys have been a fixture fundamental to upward mobility for indigenous subsistence farmers and traders. Indeed, donkeys were first domesticated centuries ago in Africa. Donkeys are adept at drawing heavy loads and are easy to handle. Ethiopia is estimated to have 7 million donkeys, more than any other nation across the globe. Another 6 million exist in a variety of other African nations. But, because of Chinese tastes and beliefs, African donkeys are now worth more dead than alive.

Thanks to strong new Chinese demand, slaughterhouses for donkeys alone have been constructed, often financed by China, in Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, and Niger. In some countries donkey hides now fetch $500 each; a decade ago $100 would have been a welcome price.

In Kenya, the donkey population has fallen in the last decade by more than 30 percent, from 1.8 million to 1.2 million animals. There are three licensed slaughterhouses in Kenya. In 2018 and 2019 they were butchering 1,000 or so donkeys a day to supply skins and meat to China. The returns at the slaughterhouses are so appealing that thieves began rustling donkeys and driving them illegally to slaughterhouses; in Kenya, at least, there is a thriving black market in donkeys – all to satisfy Chinese tastes.

This intensified demand and the high prices that are now common in the donkey trade have driven governments, such as Niger and Burkina Faso, to ban the export of donkey skins to China. Twelve other African nations, including Botswana, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have also closed their specialized slaughterhouses, or prohibited any sale of donkey hides or remains beyond their borders, especially to China.

Whereas Chinese entrepreneurs have sponsored the poaching of wild animals, such as elephants and rhinoceroses (Part One of the series), that is not necessary for the capture of donkeys. They can be purchased legally from farmers and other rural African dwellers. Or they can be purchased from African thieves who are now in the business of making easy money from the donkey trade. Whatever the method, the number of live donkeys in Africa is shrinking – with severe consequences for rural transport and small-scale merchandising in villages.

China’s import of donkey skins – a partial response to the halving of donkeys in China itself in the last decade to satisfy insatiable local demand for donkey skins – continues mostly unchecked. Curiously, most of the skins and other remains travel across the sea to end up in an otherwise unprepossessing eastern Chinese county called Dong’e, situated on the left bank of the Yellow River sixty miles upstream from Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. With increasing internal demand for the donkeys, nearly all of China’s own supply of the animals has dried up, almost entirely to serve the medicinal trade.

Dong’e is where nearly all of the world’s ejiao – a gelatin boiled down from donkeys – is now made from 4 million skins a year. Supposed curative powers once again drive demand. Consuming ejiao, billboards shout, will guarantee long lives, help lose weight, and boost energy. It is often prescribed to fix urinary, gynecological, cardiovascular, and other complaints, and has been a folk remedy for hundreds of years. It prevents cancer. As a blood tonic and thinner, it fixes anemia, removes acne, and improves libido. As a wellness product for the rising middle classes, it can be purchased as a face cream, as a candy, or even as a liqueur.

Ejiao has a long and illustrious history in Chinese herb lore, going back 1000 years or more. It is as much a solid glue as a gelatin that is sold and used as beads, formed by fragmenting a gelatin block and frying the result together with clam shall powder or pollen from marshy cattails. The blocks themselves – the glue – are said to have a slight odor and a sweet flavor. Originally, 1000 years ago or so, cowhides were used for the same medicine, but donkey skins produced a finer and tastier result.

The four main producing companies in Dong’e have brilliantly marketed this stewed extract of donkey into a health product with multiple beneficial benefits – all to the detriment of Africa. That is why several African countries are redoubling their efforts to slow down or halt the export of their previously not-highly-regarded donkeys to feed Chinese demand. Ultimately, in Africa, nothing can easily replace the donkey as a useful beast of burden and transport.

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