The government has ordered donkey slaughterhouses closed as concerns rise over the theft of the animals by gangs seeking their skin.
Kenya has become the epicentre of a fast-growing industry in Africa to supply donkey skins to China, where a gelatin called ejiao made from boiling them down is used in a traditional medicine believed to stop ageing and boost libido.
Kenya has four licensed donkey abattoirs —more than any other country on the continent — which slaughter around 1,000 donkeys a day, according to government data.
But growing Chinese demand for ejiao has led to a black market with gangs hired by skin-smuggling networks to steal donkeys, inciting anger in communities who depend on the animals for livelihoods, farming or transport.
“We want to stop that criminality. We want to stop that brutality,” Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya told reporters on Monday after meeting protesting donkey owners in Nairobi.
“(We want) to restore the donkey to its rightful place in our society - that of supporting livelihoods and providing crucial transport that is not easy to get, especially for the lower echelons of our society.”
If the trade continued, donkey populations would be decimated, he said, adding this would hit the country’s economy. The slaughterhouses have been ordered to close within a month.
More than 300,000 donkeys - 15 per cent of Kenya’s population - have been slaughtered for skin and meat export in less than three years, according to the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO).
More than 4,000 were reported stolen over the same period from April 2016 to December 2018, KALRO said in a report in June last year.
The report warned the animals were being slaughtered at a rate five times higher than their population was growing, which could wipe out Kenya’s donkey population by as early as 2023.
‘God is good’
Donkey owners who have lost their animals to the trade welcomed the decision, but expressed fears it would continue underground.
“God is good. He remembered the poor people in Kenya who have nothing but their donkeys,” said John Nduhiu Kuiyaki, chairman of a donkey owners association on the outskirts of the Naivasha, 100 km (60 miles) north of the capital, Nairobi.
“We have lost a lot of money from the theft of our donkeys - this has impacted everything from being able to send our kids to good schools to our inability to buy land.”
The group of 30 owners used to have 100 donkeys, but thefts over the last three years left them with only 50, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Animal rights groups said the decision by the Kenyan government could encourage other African nations to follow suit.
“This move by the Kenyan government is game-changing,” said Mike Baker, chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary.
“Countries like Tanzania have only engaged in the trade because they were losing donkeys in numbers into Kenya. They now have no reason to allow donkey slaughterhouses to operate either and we call on them to follow Kenya’s lead.”
Donkey slaughter has surged in Africa as demand for ejiao has jumped 10-fold to about 6,000 tonnes a year in China whose donkey population - once the world’s largest - has plummeted to 4.5 million from 11 million in 1990, United Nations data shows.
Once a luxury for the elite, ejiao, which comes as a tablet to dissolve in water or in anti-ageing cream, is now widely used by China’s increasingly wealthy middle class and diaspora.