In South Africa, donkeys, whose population is declining due to poaching, are placed under high protection due to trafficking to China. According to a recent study by the University of South Africa, the number of specimens in the country has decreased by more than 30% in twenty years, falling from 210,000 heads in 1996 to 146,000 in 2019. The same phenomenon occurs in other African countries such as Kenya or Burkina Faso, making animal defenders fear that the species will go extinct on the continent in just a few years. In question, a mysterious substance called “ejiao”obtained from the gelatin of the skin of the animal when boiled.
The main consumer is China, which needs more than ten million donkeys a year to feed this multimillion-dollar market, according to the UK species conservation organization Donkey Sanctuary (link in English). In Asia, the price of‘”ejiao” can reach the equivalent of 340 euros per kilo.
No scientific test proves it, but according to traditional Chinese medicine, this remedy “miracle” has properties similar to those attributed to rhinoceros horn: improvement of blood circulation, slowing down of aging, stimulation of libido and fertility. Served as a drink or with nuts as an appetizer,“ejiao” was once reserved for emperors. But it is increasingly in demand by the Chinese middle class. China, which has seen its donkey population nearly halve in recent years, has turned to Africa to meet demand. On the continent, the skin of these animals, mainly used for transporting agricultural products or water, has no commercial value.
Several African countries including Kenya have already banned the slaughter of donkeys, noting an upsurge in thefts in recent years. Electrified fences, alarms, microchips to trace the animal, “we had to put security measures in place” against poaching, says Jesse Christelis, a breeder in Magaliesburg, more than an hour from Johannesburg. He owns one of the two donkey milk production farms in the country. South Africa officially exports 10,500 skins each year to Hong Kong and China. But the real quantities are undoubtedly much higher with the illegal market. In 2015, authorities confiscated nearly 3,000 skins suspected of being trafficked, with a total value estimated at more than 285,000 euros. And two shipments have already been intercepted since the beginning of the year.
The Department of Agriculture in the particularly hard-hit remote North West Province says “investigate every reported incident”. The country is already an expert in the fight against the poaching of endangered rhinos, and is leading a high-tech fight with digital sensors and thermal cameras. But the protection of donkeys, which are often slaughtered illegally in conditions denounced by NGOs, is not there yet. They “are mostly kept in rural areas where the technology doesn’t really exist”explains Jesse Christelis.
The breeder has also noted an exponential rise in the price of animals, from the equivalent of 28 euros to 120 euros in five years. According to him, traffickers and breeders fight over the lots during the auctions. Combined with the decline in population, this price increase threatens, according to breeders, the nascent industry in the country of donkey milk, particularly prized against skin diseases.