Chinese donkey skin harvesting: A threat to traditional draught power and food security

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Independent Journalist

Nov 19, 2019, 03:47 EST

Gaborone, BW, Nov 19, 2019, 03:47 /Comserve / -- News

Gaborone, Botswana: The Chinese harvesting of donkey skins in Botswana and in some parts of Africa is said to be a big threat to the existence of the animal and food security as these animals are used as draught power and for tillage in small scale noncommercial farms.

Donkey skin trade across Africa has deleterious effect on the rural economy, food and nutrition security. As donkeys contribute enormously to the rural economy, it is important that they are humanely treated and sustainably utilized says Dr. John Moreki, from Botswana Ministry of Agricultural Development & Food Security.

The high demand for donkey skins/hides is a major concern to Africa’s agricultural development. Africa has 33 million farms of less than 2 hectares, accounting for 80 percent of all farms and these are mainly cultivated using animal draught power.

Trade in donkey products has increased in recent years; in particular skins are sought after for gelatin. The escalating slaughter is driven by demand in Asian countries e.g. China, Vietnam and other countries like USA, Germany etc. Donkey populations in Asia have decreased significantly and this is causing them to look elsewhere for their supply.

The donkey population in most African countries is under threat as large volumes of donkeys are slaughtered daily for their skin which is said to have medicinal qualities. The skin produces expensive medicinal products including the Chinese medicine called Gelatin-Ejiao.

The donkey skin’s other medicinal properties have anti-aging elements and   Afrodisiac which is delay menopause.

The escalating slaughter rates of donkeys is worrying  some members of the community, especial those whose livelihood depend on the donkey and non-governmental animal protection organizations like the Botswana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (BSPCA) to Animal and Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA).

Nonofo Galebotse, a 79 year old village man from Botswana presented the human impact that donkeys have on the lives of many thousands of people who are wholly reliant on the animals for their livelihoods and indeed survival in the harsh environment they live and work in.

 “They are the industrious, multi-purpose able to carry out a wide variety of tasks under very limited circumstances. Their absence would affect the livelihood of all rural people, if you take care of a donkey, it will take care of you,” says Nonofo Galebotse.

Botswana government rural and Remote Area Dwellers (RAD) schools use donkey carts to ferry learners to and from school. Some of the learners live more 10 kilometers from the closest school and their only mode of transport is donkey drawn carts or wagons. The operators of the carts are paid monthly by the government.

According to  Pippa Young, SPANA’s Country Director, there is need for raising awareness because of the recorded dropping numbers of the  Botswana donkey herds, from 383 000 to 141 000 in less than 10 years.

“The drop in numbers is a direct result of the skin trade and because of the potential opening of a new abattoir in Sehitwa (a village in north-western part of Botswana, kilometers from the capital city of Gaborone) and in other places in Botswana,” says Pippa Young.

With the presented expected and current slaughter rate it was anticipated that the donkey population within Botswana will become unsustainable, if not extinct within 3 to 4 years. Stock theft especially of donkeys is going up because the donkeys are not branded, the loss livelihoods because losing  draught power for household farm tillage and drawing of water for domestic use or to water other domestic animals like the goats, sheep or cattle.

SPANA Country Director, Pippa Young says the Bo-Chang, Francistown abattoir incident in 2017 enlightened SPANA of the threat on donkey population and donkey slaughter practices in Botswana.  

The Bo Chang Group (Proprietary) (Limited) started the abattoir operations in April 2017 with the export of 189 donkey hides. The figure rose to 307 in May, and almost doubled to 588 in June 2017.

“Acting on a tip-off about inhumane holding, slaughter and disposal of flesh, an inter-ministerial task-force raided Bo Chang abattoir late in June 2017. They found 452 starved and emaciated donkeys penned up for slaughter. Most of the donkeys were euthanised on humanitarian grounds and the owner was fined only P50.00 (US$5.00) for animal cruelty,” says SPANA Country Director, Pippa Young.

Sadly, not any of the meat from the skin harvested and slaughtered donkeys are consumed by anyone despite the meat being said to be a delicacy and of demand in some European countries. In Botswana many also prefer donkey meat as it has no known diseases.

The practices of the Bo-Chang abattoir were also a negative environmental impact which caused contamination of underground water and flowing river water. The abattoir disposed of the carcasses in a pit close to the Tati River after skinning the animals.

“Hundreds of rotten carcasses were found dumped in makeshifts pits, with fluids seeping into the Tati River, a lifeline for the city of Francistown and communities further downstream,” says Dr. John Moreki.

The Bo-Chang abattoir was not the only donkey skin trade establishment that popped up in the country, The Northern Advertiser  (a local, Botswana advertiser) ran the following advert:-

 “OPENING 18 April 2017 at BCG Farm NQ14, Tati Farms, Francistown, Bo Chang Group (Proprietary) (Limited).  We are the only licensed company in Botswana for donkey slaughtering. We buy donkeys from Batswana at a reasonable price. Six months prior to the opening, the Bo Chang Group had started recruiting management and factory staff – more than a month before the government licensed donkey abattoirs in September 2016”.

On April 2017 a Ghanzi farmer and lion breeder Chris Kitching in Botswana told metro radio station Gabz FM (a local radio station based in the capital city of Gaborone) that the abattoir on his farm had raised the daily slaughter rate from 30 to 50 donkeys. The abattoir was a partnership with Chinese nationals who were ‘recommended’ to him by an associate.  Due to brisk business, Kitching planned to set up a bigger abattoir at Hyena Field Farm, a property he owns in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

There was yet another brutal slaughter and skinning of a record 128 donkeys within a week in the Boteti (in central Botswana) in February 2017 by Chinese company, Y-2K Holding, the business model, location and conduct of Botswana’s donkey abattoirs still  remained largely unknown.

Members of Parliament criticised the government for failing to consult widely on the impacts of the donkey trade on community livelihoods and buying and slaughters had ceased across Boteti (a district in central Botswana) by March 2017.

The selling and buying price of the donkey is normally less than the price of the donkey skin. A donkey can be bought or sold at BW Pula 500 (almost US$50) whereas the skin is valued at close to US$3000.00.

The true scale of the underground donkey hide trade spawned by ‘slaughter-slab’ experiment went unrecognised until early 2016 when police in Molepolole arrested what they called a ‘syndicate’ of four Zimbabweans and a Chinese citizen in connection with illegal slaughter and export to Zimbabwe of 1,200 donkey hides.

“The Chinese would come to the villages and leave money with their runners to buy donkeys.  Y-2K Holdings runners fixed the donkey price at P550 (US$55) each and pocketed up to P150 (US$15) in commission per sale,” says Kenneth Ditshweu (BSPCA)

“Throughout January and February, they returned every Tuesday with a Chinese man who used a hunting rifle to shoot all the donkeys through the head at close range,” a Toromoja Community Policing Forum member told Oxpeckers (Botswana local newsletter).

According to Dr. John Moreki, the donkey skin trade is used as a medium for trafficking other products; it is becoming clear that wildlife traffickers are taking advantage of the skins trade.  The possibility of concealing ivory, pangolin products and rhino horns within donkey skin consignments has been proven,  even drugs and firearms.

In the Republic of South Africa, seizures have been made of tiger skins and abalone concealed in packed donkey skin export. Elephant tusks, Rhino horns, Pangolin are often involve multinational syndicates.  Should the Donkey Skin Trade (DST) continue to soar, these are the items likely to be trafficked to the East and other global destinations.

There also use of donkeys in poaching activities as transport for poachers and their acquisitions. The donkeys are often loaded and left to go back home alone because the donkey can find their way home without the aid of a handler or anyone. This is a way of evading law enforcement because the donkeys will be found on their own and if followed to their home, the poacher can always claim that it is his donkey but it was stolen weeks back.

In 2001, a government-commissioned feasibility study recommended trial donkey meat exports to Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and other European countries where donkey meat sausages are a delicacy.

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