Since time immemorial, Kenyans have known donkeys to be beats of labor. Indeed homesteads owning one of these animals saw their need for transportation, and other hard jobs done smoothly on the backs of these hardy animals.
While in some parts of the world, like China, donkeys are considered a delicacy and even to possess medicinal properties in their skins. Virtually all Kenyans will frown at the thought of eating donkey meat. Well, that has been so until the Chinese touched down in the country in their thousands about a decade ago (give or take five years).
The Chinese came for business, and business opportunities they aggressively sought. While they mainly came as ‘expatriates’ to work in Chinese firms contracted by the government of Kenya to do jobs like roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects. During their time out and about exploring the beauties Kenya has to offer, they must have noticed just how many donkeys were also out and about.
For the typical homestead (farmhouse in this context), once a donkey has done its days work, there nothing much they need from the donkey. They can go out and about as they please; within reason of course! Even when a donkey gets old or becomes a road-kill, typically Kenyans would bury the carcass or feed it to the dogs.
Seeing a donkey just out and about was pretty common before the Chinese arrival in their masses. The Chinese too must have noticed there too many donkeys around, and yet back in China, where the beast of labor is eaten, and the skin used to make gelatin called ejiao for traditional medicine. Someone must have come up with the ‘brilliant idea’ of capitalizing on this opportunity, of shipping donkey meat and skin to China.
Men at work at a Chinese-owned donkey abattoir in Baringo County, in Kenyan’s Reift Valley
Several donkey abattoirs have been set up in various parts of the country, where locals can now sell their beast of burden for ready cash. One donkey can go for about $208, which looks like good money for most households especially in the rural areas.
Donkey is now in demand but not for its beastly qualities, but for sale to the Chinese abattoirs. A development that has seen thieves start raiding people farmlands and making away with the donkeys. Something abnormal, since before livestock thieves would come for animals like cows, sheep, goats, and camels, but not donkeys. These days, it seems donkey are moving up the list of most reported cases of livestock theft to the law authorities.
The population of the hard animal has also plummeted very fast, and the situation is made worse by the fact, donkeys don’t breed that fast.
A British charity Donkey Sanctuary is calling upon donkey owners across Africa to stop selling their beasts of labor to the Chinese abattoirs. The organization is calling out on the mistreatment the animal is undergoing and the fact that these abattoirs are now fueling donkey thefts in various regions.
The Society for the Protections of Animals Abroad, another charity organization also based in Britain, sends a warning to the donkey owners. The organization says:
“For a subsistence farmer in a country like Ethiopia… being offered the equivalent of $208, cash in hand, could seem like an offer too good to turn down. But the long-term consequences of selling their means of generating an income are unthinkable.”
While such charity organization coming out to tell donkey owners what to do, or what not to do, with their donkey might not sit well with some people engaged in this trade. It is undeniable that they do put forth a strong case, and farmers across the continent need to rethink about the effects of selling their donkey for ready cash from a long-term perspective.
Some African governments do agree with such organizations and have moved to impose a ban on the export of donkey meats. One might argue that such move is like curing a symptom but not addressing the real challenges the people are facing.
They could perhaps come up with other means of economic empowerment that could give farmers alternatives to selling their donkeys. Maybe they don’t need to kill the trade; they just need to make it sustainable through coming up with a business model that will see the population of donkey rise through animal husbandry.
Donkey abattoirs in China are already considering that route, and are working on a business model that will see them stop importing the animal’s products. Perhaps the African government and these charity organizations could come up with such business model; although it is a fact, donkeys don’t breed that fast. To make their ‘harvesting’ a commercial undertaking will require agribusiness innovation. Otherwise, just like other wild animals like rhinos and elephants are being killed in Africa and illegally finding their way into China for weird medicinal purposes, donkeys too will be endangered species across the continent.