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Porous Moyale border poses threat to Kenya, Ethiopia donkey populations

North Eastern
 Vets tend to donkeys in Moyale, North Eastern Kenya. [Courtesy]

Braying donkeys and jerrycans clapping against each other in the wee hours of each morning, are familiar sounds that welcome one to Moyale, Marsabit County.

Out of curiosity, I follow the sounds, only to realize that the domestic animals and their minders are headed to a nearby water point at Heilu, in Manyatta ward.

I meet Fatuma Dalle, a villager who tells ‘The Standard’ that the donkeys are more than usual on that particular day because of the vaccination exercise scheduled at the dam.

“I have come here with the two donkeys that help me in my water supply business. I distribute the water I fetch from the dam daily to people living in Moyale town, who are grappling with shortages of the basic commodity,” says Dalle, a resident of Heilu.

I communicate with 42-year-old Dalle through a translator, a middle-aged man who understands both Swahili and the local Borana language.

Residents from the neighbouring communities depend on the rainwater that collects in the dam. Locals often fetch water before ten, or risk the unbearable scorching sun.

“Before, we used to trek for over five kilometres to look for water. But since we came out as a community and constructed the dam, it has relieved us from the burden of walking for long distances in search of water. We, water vendors, have taken the initiative to employ two security guards to watch over the water from being contaminated by wild animals,” she explains.

Locals believe that animals such as hyenas and other smaller species, foul their water point.

In this area, water vending is a booming business that comes with a hefty profit. Vendors buy a 20-litre jerrycan of water for five shillings and sell it for 100 shillings in the local town.

Heilu Water Point lies strategically between Kenya and Ethiopia, hence it acts as a meeting point for communities from both countries.

“Foreigners from Ethiopia and people from other wards pay 10 shillings more than Heilu residents for a jerrycan of water,” Dalle says.

She adds that it’s through the business that she fends for her family including paying school fees for her six children.

 Women at a water point in Garissa County. Access to clean drinking water is one of the challenges in North Eastern. [Samson Wire, Standard]

She is hopeful that with time she will acquire more donkeys and expand her business.

Manyatta ward has around 2,000 residents who depend on the dam for water supply.

Walking along the water point,  I meet Abdi Dida, who is busy arranging his yellow jerry cans ready to draw water before heading to prepare his donkey for vaccination. He is kind enough to stop and explain how he takes care of his beast of labour.

“I employ Ethiopians to take care of my donkeys. An employee reports to work in the morning and returns home (In Ethiopia) in the evening,” Dida narrates.

“ They are paid a monthly salary that ranges from Sh.2,000 to Sh.3,000 depending on the number of donkeys the employer handles.”

Dida, 48 says Ethiopians are the best alternative since most locals need to allow their children to attend school instead of staying home to graze their livestock.

Whilst there are Kenyan markets where pastoralist communities purchase animals including donkeys, Ethiopia is still the most preferred source due to its proximity and cost.

“We share one market with the Ethiopians so in case one wants to buy a donkey, it’s never a problem. There are Kenyan men there who help with negotiations and even act as witnesses during the purchasing process,” Dida explains.

He says the witness helps in authenticating the transaction and even assists in identifying the donkeys that retrace their way back to the previous owners.

Dida, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, mentions that one of the major challenges that the community faces is the inability to identify their donkeys in a herd when they get lost.

“We still lack proper means of identifying donkeys … We simply observe the direction from where the animal is coming from to tell if it’s from Manyatta or Ethiopia. Ethiopian donkeys have dark body marks while we tattoo ears or use physical marks which at times are identical” he implies.

 He adds that another challenge is the disappearance of the animals which can take up to three months to trace.

On this particular day, veterinarians from the African Network of Animal Welfare(ANAW) in collaboration with the county government of Marsabit, have visited to empower locals on how to enhance donkey security. They are also conducting mass vaccination against rabies, and tetanus among other common conditions specifically at Heilu and Ginisa regions.

 Donkeys tethered along the porous Moyale Border Point. [Samson Wire, Standard]

“This village was one of the areas highly affected when we had conducted operations on slaughterhouses in the country. As a result of illegal movements of the animals between the two countries, quite several donkeys were affected and hence stolen,” Doctor Dennis Bahati, a Programs Manager from ANAW explains.

 At the water point, we move closer to watch from a distance how the vaccination is being administered. Donkeys can be feisty sometimes.

Two middle-aged men pin the donkey in a makeshift crush using metal grills. The vet can only wait until the animal is calm before injecting it. The injection must be swift before the animal senses danger and turns hostile. Once the injection is administered, the donkey fidgets violently but is only set free once it eases off. 

 Dr. Bahati says that since ANAW partnered with Moyale sub-county together with border patrol in 2021, donkey welfare issues and needs have been enhanced.

“In recent weeks we have noticed an upsurge in illegal movements of donkeys along this specific border between Kenya and Ethiopia. These donkeys are coming into the country and heading to areas we have identified as hotspots for donkey slaughter and these are Kajiado and Kiambu counties. That is a big threat affecting donkeys,” says Bahati.

Hassan Guyo, one of the officials from Marsabit County’s Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services, admits that there has been a spike in illegal cross-border donkey movement reported in the area within the last three months.

“It was reported that about eight to ten lorries ferrying between 4000 to 6000 donkeys moved from Moyale border to unknown destinations, and it has been reported that there have been cases of an upsurge in bush slaughter in areas of Naivasha,” Guyo said.

 In February 2024, African heads of state agreed to ban the slaughter of donkeys for their skin, a move that was aimed at protecting the continent's 33 million donkeys.

 According to data from the Donkey Sanctuary, at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered globally for their skins every year to meet the demand for traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao.

 Guyo says that there are legal loopholes that need to be addressed to achieve the ban`.

 “Donkey slaughter was banned but there has been a legal loophole in that these animals were being moved yet, the movement was not banned. So the traders are taking advantage of the loopholes and moving these animals to various destinations where they do bush slaughter,”

 He is calling on the government and advocacy groups to take up the initiative so that the illicit movement of donkeys is banned to protect donkey populations.

Guyo also says an initiative for donkey identification and traceability will help track and tackle cases of theft of the animals.

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