Cases of theft of donkeys are on the rise in Mwea region of Kirinyaga County, which could spell doom to the hundreds of owners and their employees.
Farmers are now up in arms following a spate of disappearances of their beasts of burden, which they suspect are being illegally slaughtered in the neighbourhood or transported to licenced abattoirs outside the county.
On the eve of Jamhuri Day, residents of Murubara village woke up to discover four heads of donkeys stashed near a river bank.
Women on their way to fetch water stumbled on the find, raising fear that donkey meat could be ending up on their plates, unbeknown to them.
Two farmers, Samuel Kiama and John Macharia, who claimed ownership of the donkeys recorded statements at Wang'uru police station.
According to Wang'uru Donkey Owners Association chairman Leonard Gachoki, there are about 3,500 donkeys in Kirinyaga County whose existence is threatened by merchants who source them for abattoirs and by cases of theft.
Gachoki said after the opening of a slaughterhouses in Naivasha and Mogotio, traders flooded Mwea where they bought lame or blind donkeys at Sh4,000 and in a few months exhausted them.
"The traders then turned on the healthy ones and engaged middlemen to source for them. The brokers in turn depended on people who ended up stealing our donkeys. We are losing about four donkeys every once in a while," said Gachoki.
Gachoki who has used donkeys to offer transportation services since 1987 pointed out that donkeys are now on the decline and called on the government to step in and end the thefts.
He said in June, six donkeys were stolen from Makutano area and a few weeks later another three were stolen in Thiba village.
The cases were reported at Wang'uru police station and two suspects arrested. The cases are still on-going.
"The thieves target donkeys gathered in enclosures overnight and make away with several. In some cases we find only skeletons after they have extracted the steak. We had cases where dealers in donkey hides poisoned donkeys at night. When the carcass is discarded they exhume and skin it," he said.
To curb the thefts, the association has now banned sale of donkeys at farms and roadsides and requires buyers and sellers to transact only at Kutus and Makutano during market days.
Gachoki says donkeys employ about 2,000 people in Mwea every day to offer transportation services and are relied on to ferry most of the rice produced in the scheme to the mills.
Florence Wainaina, a donkey owner, says donkeys have made life easier for women for lightening their duties such as fetching water and carrying loads to market.
Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (Kendat), an organisation advocating for improvement in the welfare of donkeys, says the supply of donkeys in the country cannot sustain the abattoirs.
"We were informed that one of the abattoirs in Rift Valley slaughters 100 donkeys in a day. If they focus solely in Mwea they would wipe away the beast of burden in slightly over a month's time. We need to relook the slaughter of donkeys," said Kendat Heshimu Punda Programme Manager Eston Murithi.
Donkey owners are now planning for a major demonstration, where they will present their grievances to national and county government officials.