How global demand for donkey skins is hurting women

Josphine Mpatiany, who lost her donkey in 2017 in Olaimutiai in Narok. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

In Olaimutiai village in Nkareta, Narok North constituency, tiny specks of dust along the footpaths dance to the rays of the sun.

When drops of rain hit the dust, it instantly turns to rich, dark brown mud, just like it does in Rombo, Kajiado South, nearly 450 kilometres away.

In 2016, the pounding of donkey hoofs upon the soil in the two villages almost came to a standstill.

The cause was a chain of theft and bush slaughter of donkeys to feed the global demand for donkey skin trade.

This left a trail of poorer donkey-dependent pastoral communities, especially women and children.

“It was all peaceful until 2016 towards the end of the year. Demand for donkeys suddenly went up and thieves would break into livestock sheds at night to steal and sell them to the slaughterhouses,” Josephine Mpatiany, a resident said.

Since women in Olaimutiai travel over 15 kilometers to access the nearest river, donkeys rank among key possessions in such vast terrains.

“One night in 2016, my pregnant donkey was stolen. Days later, the remaining one was also stolen and I had to start buying water and sometimes spent the entire morning walking to the river,” Mpatiany said.

And while Mpatiany was trying to come to terms with living without her donkeys for the first time in many years, Selina Netipango in Rombo, Kajiado South, was counting a bigger loss of six donkeys in one night.

“One day, I woke up and found all the donkeys missing. I followed the footprints only to find the carcasses a few metres from the compound. They had been slaughtered and their skins taken away. No part of the skin was left behind,” Netipango said.

Netipango’s life has been difficult ever since, as her livelihood was entirely dependent on the donkeys.

A woman loads her donkey with jerrycans in Ndiwa, Nyatike. [Caleb King'wara, Standard]

Yet her donkeys are only a few of millions in the growing statistics of theft of the animal to feed the global demand for ejiao, a traditional Chinese remedy believed by some to have medicinal properties.

According to the Donkey Sanctuary, global donkey populations are in a crisis as they are traded and stolen to feed rising demand for their skins.

It estimates the ejiao industry currently requires some 4.8 million donkey skins annually.

“With China’s donkey population reducing from 11 million in 1992 to just 2.6 million currently, the ejiao industry has had to source donkey skins from around the world. This has contributed to the decline in national donkey populations,” the report titled, Under The Skin said.

Among donkey-owning communities in Kenya, women are dependent on donkeys to ferry luggage over long distances and rough terrains.

While in some areas women have formed table-banking groups financed by hiring out donkeys or ferrying goods to the market, some groups, including that of women from Olaimutiai, collapsed with the onset of donkey theft.

This has also impacted negatively on school-going children.

“In such remote areas, women treasure donkeys. Twice a week, with a group of fellow women, we would go to Nkareta market carrying farm produce to sell, which would earn me up to Sh1,000.

“Part of the money would go into table-banking, which I would eventually use to pay school fees and part of it would cater for some shopping. When one hires out a donkey, they get extra Sh200,” Mpatiany said.

However due to the thefts, the table-banking group collapsed, leaving parents without means of educating their children.

For Maria Kol, another resident who is in her 80s, the situation was dire when her four donkeys were stolen in one night in 2017.

“It is like they wanted me to die. I almost lost my mind when they took all of them and I had a very sick child. I did not have the money to buy water and could not even walk to the river but there were times I just had to walk and carry water. It almost killed me. It is sad,” Kol said.

While Kol used to hire out her donkeys so as to support in paying school fees for some of her grandchildren, buying food in her house and catering for medical bills, the situation almost came to a standstill. 

Woman loading donkeys at a water point keys in Elangata-Wuas, Kajiado County. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

On the fateful night, she says, many donkeys were stolen in the village including her neighbours’, a situation which prompted a protest and a visit to one of the donkey slaughterhouses.

“The entire village raised money to hire a lorry for those who lost their donkeys to visit the slaughterhouse and check if our donkeys were there. However, we came back empty-handed after two days. To date, my donkeys have never been traced,” she said.

While donkey theft became a norm in villages surrounding the slaughterhouses, areas that had higher concentration of donkeys especially in the arid and semi-arid areas of Nakuru, Baringo, Turkana, Kajiado and Narok felt the heat.

Statistics by Brooke East Africa, an organisation that deals with donkey and horse welfare, indicate donkeys stolen in 13 out of 47 counties in Kenya totaled 3,969 between 2016 and 2018.

Kajiado County recorded 941 cases of theft while Narok, Nakuru and Turkana followed with 734,599 and 590 cases respectively between December 2016 and 2018. 446 cases were reported in Bomet County.

The statistics revealed that the theft intensified in 2017 and 2018. Between December 2016 and March 2017, 705 cases were recorded in Kajiado alone, while between April 2017 and August the same year, Narok recorded 500 cases.

Other counties where donkey theft cases have been recorded include Baringo, Kirinyaga, Kitui, Kiambu, Tharaka-Nithi and Machakos.

“Exact figures on donkey theft should be more because these are the only cases that were reported to the authorities. Many others went unreported,” said Samuel Theuri, an advocacy officer with the organisation.

Eunice Njeri, whose donkey was stolen in 2016, is among those whose donkeys never made it to the growing statistics.

Njeri, a resident of Lare in Njoro, Nakuru County said while her donkey was her main source of income that generated school fees for her children, she did not report the missing donkey to the authorities.

“I used to walk over 10 kilometres into Mau forest to collect fallen twigs for firewood which I would sell. I would ferry the firewood with the donkey and sell it in Lare. When the donkey was stolen, I did not report because it was futile,” Njeri said.

In Baringo County, women have been at the forefront calling for the closure of donkey slaughterhouses.

“When a woman is pregnant for nine months, nobody is as dedicated as the donkey is in helping her ease the load. In these villages where rivers are kilometres away, donkeys are helpers. We call them co-wives because they ease us of the burden,” Jane Kiprono from Mogotio in Baringo County said.

Woman collecting firewood in Machesa village, Wajir County. [Pius Cheruiyot, Standard]

She noted donkeys play a big role in keeping children in school as their guardians earn from ferrying goods and hiring out the animals.

“Many women depend on donkeys to pay school fees. Many get contracts from schools to supply them with water and firewood so that they can offset school fee balances.

“In instances where these donkeys are removed from the communities, it calls for an outcry,” she added.

While the demand for donkey skins rose sharply, it also impacted the price of donkeys locally from between Sh6,000 and Sh8,000 to over Sh14,000 currently.

Brooke East Africa chief executive Raphael Kinoti said in Kenya and Africa in general, donkeys are known to be women-owned animals because they are mainly used by women and children in helping them in household chores.

“Removing these donkeys from rural communities negatively impacts on women and children. It returns the burden of carrying water and firewood onto the backs of women and children,” Kinoti said.

He added that whenever donkeys are missing, the direct impact is felt by women and children who spend a lot of time performing the roles.

“Children spend a lot of time taking up these duties and most of the time miss out on school because the source that generates some income to settle off the school fees is missing.

“It also becomes very expensive to replace a stolen donkey and their prices are increasing,” he said.

By 2019, the response to donkey welfare issues made it to the national stage in the Kenya Music Festivals, where learners highlighted issues on bush slaughter and donkey theft while calling on the government to intervene in the situation. 

In poems and songs, learners praised donkeys for being ‘Cinderella’, ‘Mama’s Savior’ and ‘Pride of Motherland’ who was being sought-after for its skin.

Purity Njoroge, a senior programmes manager at Farming Systems Kenya said that while donkey theft had intensified between December 2016 and early 2021, the revocation of donkey slaughter licenses by the government in March 2020 led to a drop in theft cases.

According to a report by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and Brooke East Africa, a total of 301,977 donkeys were slaughtered in four export slaughterhouses within the period between April 2016 and December 2018.

During the same period, 16,543 tonnes of meat were exported alongside 2,169 tonnes of donkey skin. Slaughter of donkeys, as per the statistics, has been rising over the years from 20,768 in 2016 to 121,578 in 2017 and 159,631 in 2018.

The report titled, ‘Status of Donkey Slaughter in Kenya and its implications on Donkey Population and Community Livelihoods’ reveals that Kenya was slaughtering its donkeys five times the rate at which they were reproducing, a projection that detailed that donkeys would get depleted by 2023 if no interventions were put in place.

The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census reported donkey populations as 1,832,519. By 2016, when the first donkey slaughter was being opened, the ministry projected that the donkey populations had grown by 1.04 percent to 1.9 million.

However, the 2020 census reported the donkey population at 1.1 million, a reduction by 789,258 in a period of three years since the slaughter began.

Between 2016 and 2020, the rise in demand for donkey products for export also led to a rise in cross-border smuggling, where Kenya became an epi-centre.

Kinoti said the trade saw countries including Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Ethiopia lose donkeys that are believed to have been smuggled into Kenya.

“The fact that there was sudden influx of very different breeds from those in Kenya was a sign enough that cross-border smuggling was taking a center stage, a move that warned of diplomatic rows with countries pointing at Kenya,” he added.

In 2020, the government announced that it would consider including the donkey in its identification and traceability system in order to curb donkey theft and cross-border smuggling that was brought about by global demand.

Women ferrying goods to the market using donkeys, 2020. [Caleb King'wara, Standard]

Veterinary experts said that replacing the lost Kenyan donkeys might be difficult, as there are currently no artificial reproductive techniques to boost donkey breeding.

“Assisted reproductive technologies in donkeys have not worked and the only way is letting donkeys breed through natural methods,” Dr Kithuka said.

“Donkeys are hard breeders and prone to abortion when under stress. Their gestation period takes longer than a year. Very little research has also been done on donkeys, unlike other livestock.”

But with demand outstripping supply, the government gazetted the ban of donkey slaughter to meet the export market as farmers in March 2020 over what it termed as rising theft cases and dwindling numbers.

In May this year, the High Court in Naivasha quashed the ban on commercial slaughter of donkeys, citing failure by the State to defend its case sufficiently.

Just last month, a petition signed by over 30,000 donkey owners was delivered to the government demanding a ban on the slaughter of donkeys for skin and meat, following this year’s reversal of the ban.

But while the status of donkey slaughter in Kenya remains in limbo, initiatives to boost security of the remaining donkey stock in the country have been engineered by donkey advocacy organisations.

In the initiative, the worst affected and most vulnerable families are identified and a donkey gifted to them.

“The period between 2016 and 2020 was the most difficult for donkey keepers in Kenya. There was phenomenal stealing and killing of donkeys as had never been witnessed before.

“Communities found themselves grappling with new cultures. They also had challenges of donkey security,” Dr Kinoti said.

Already, 66 donkeys have been distributed to families in nine counties.

Turkana leads in the bulk of donkeys that have been supplied as it falls under a hotspot zone and where women heavily rely on the animals.

“The list of those we have compiled that urgently require the donkeys to salvage the situation is really huge. Majority of the women whose donkeys were stolen cannot afford the donkeys at the moment as the prices have gone up,” Sarah Kuhutha, an officer with the Farming Systems Kenya in Narok said.

Kahutha said finding donkeys for replacement, however, is not an easy task as most villages lost the majority of the donkeys during the 2016-2020 period.

To address the challenge, the initiative tasks those who have been given the donkeys with donating the young ones whenever the females give birth.

This, she says, is to reduce on the long list awaiting donation of donkeys to support their livelihoods.

*This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.