LIMURU, Kenya – One Sunday morning in August 2015, Mary Mutiri woke to find her family donkey was gone – stolen and slaughtered by poachers. To some, this might seem like an inconvenience. For Mutiri, it was a financial disaster.
“I spent 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($193) buying the donkey and a cart,” Mutiri, a 52-year-old mother of four, said. “For three years I used it to fetch firewood and charcoal from the forest, napier grass for the cattle, and carry water.”
Mutiri suffers from arthritis and fractured her leg in an accident years ago; she can’t carry heavy loads. Left with the cart as a reminder, Mutiri now has to pay people for the same services the donkey provided.
“It’s a huge setback. From earning KES300 ($3) a day fetching water for my neighbors, now I have to pay KES300 for someone to bring the napier grass home and an additional KES500 ($5) for firewood and charcoal collection.” she said.
Donkey thefts are on the rise in Kenya due to demand for their hides from China. The gelatin in donkey skins is the basis of a traditional Chinese medicine known as ejiao, believed to improve blood circulation.
As China’s domestic donkey population has fallen over the past decade, hides have surged in value – fetching up to $400 each. The result is an unprecedented global trade in donkey skin, much of it illicit.
The increase in theft and slaughter has slowed down development projects, hitting some economies hard – particularly among women.
An Essential Animal for Women
In sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60-80 percent of the workforce producing food for household consumption and for sale, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
For many of those women, a donkey is an essential part of their livelihood.
Traditionally, women and girls are responsible for fetching water, gathering firewood, tending to the family farm and caring for children and the elderly. Over the years, donkeys have become an indispensable aid to women carrying out these labor-intensive chores, freeing up their time to be able to earn their own incomes, or supplement their husbands’ incomes.
The Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT), calculates that Kenya has more than 1.8 million donkeys, with about three-quarters of them used in transport and farming.
Now that new demand from China has increased the value of the animals, farmers are taking more care of their donkeys, protecting them from the sun, feeding them and giving them medical attention.
At night, donkeys are often left to wander in the dark, unprotected from the elements until the next morning, when they are expected to pull the often overloaded carts. Mutiri sheltered her donkey along with her cattle at night, but that wasn’t enough to save it.
The rise in theft has also made donkeys more expensive. Mutiri says she can’t afford to replace the animals she lost: “We used to buy them at KES10,000 ($97), but today you will be lucky to get one at KES20,000 ($193),” she explains.
Family Incomes Cut in Half
Jane Mbaika, 40, a mother of five from Kamulu, about 25 miles west of Nairobi, has lost four donkeys.
In 2010, when her donkeys were first taken, the skin, hooves and heads were left behind. When it happened again in 2015, the skin was nowhere to be found.
Twice, she has had to rent one for KES100 ($1) a day in order to carry on her daily water-selling business. She says her plans for the future have been on hold since the theft.
“When I bought two donkeys between 2009 and 2010, I didn’t plan on buying another one for a while. We planned on building the family a permanent house within a year, but that is yet to finish,” she said.
Victims of the 2007-08 post-election violence, her family lost everything when her musical instrument venture in Nairobi was burned down. They retreated to their rural village in Meru, northeast Kenya, seeking safety, but couldn’t stay there.
“We decided to come back to the city [Kamulu] in 2009 and start life afresh. Since Kamulu is a dry area and we had bought a piece of land while our business thrived, I thought hawking water was going to sustain us,” Mbaika said. She built her business, and became the breadwinner for the family.
Mbaika, who was able to drill her own borehole from the water vending proceeds, used to earn about KES6,000 ($58) from making 30 trips. That has since had to change.
“Each time I am forced to divert my plans to buy a donkey,” she said of the repeated thefts. “My daily earning has reduced to KES3,000 ($29).”
Skin in the Game
This year the Donkey Sanctuary published Under the Skin, a report on the emerging trade in donkey hide and its implications for welfare and livelihoods. It estimates that a minimum of 1.8 million donkey skins are traded each year. The annual global demand for the hides is thought to be 4-10 million.
Reports of donkeys being stolen and brutally slaughtered for their skins has not only been reported in Kenya but also in neighboring Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Botswana, Namibia and Niger.
The report states that in Burkina Faso in 2016, 45,000 donkeys from a population of around 1.5 million were slaughtered within six months, resulting in a ban on exporting donkey skins. Niger, which saw more than 80,000 donkeys exported in the first nine months of 2016 compared to 27,000 in the whole of 2015, banned their slaughter outright.
Egypt has recently allowed donkey leather to be exported to China for use in medicines, while Ethiopia, 83 percent of whose population live in rural areas and depend on donkeys for transportation, has constructed two large-scale, Chinese-owned donkey abattoirs.
Kenya has three donkey abattoirs owned by both Chinese and local investors, licensed to operate between 2014 and May 2017.
Eston Murithi manages the Heshimu Punda (Respect the Donkey) program at KENDAT. He attributes the proliferation of donkey thefts in Kenya to the registration of these abattoirs.
“More than 1,500 donkeys are reported to have been slaughtered illegally since 2014,” he said.
He says in the past, donkey meat was the focus of illegal poaching. “Today, the skins, the genitals and the ears previously left behind have become the target in illegal slaughters. We believe they are finding their way to these abattoirs.”
Salim Mwinyi, who works at the Naivasha donkey abattoir, denies they are contributing to the illegal slaughter. “We only buy donkeys in bulk from identified and registered traders who must show the animal movement permit from the sub-county and a purchase agreement from the source of the animals,” he said.
Mwinyi says it is time Africa changed its perspective on donkeys, from seeing them as beasts of burden to regarding them as an asset with more value as meat and skin after slaughter.
“Times have changed, and the donkey skin business is thriving. People’s mindset has to change.”
“It’s time farmers commercialize the animals to substitute household income and improve economies in Africa. Why should a child miss a class due to lack of school fees yet the family has four donkeys at home? Why not sell it for profit?” he said.
But Jane Mutio, who lives in Ruai village on the outskirts of Nairobi, says she needs her animals alive. Her two donkeys were among 11 that were illegally slaughtered overnight in May 2016.
She and her friend Rose Nyiva, who also lost two animals that night, have banded together to share a shelter, which they rent at KES150 ($1.50) per night to protect two new donkeys they have bought with a loan.
“All we are left to do is pray each night that by morning, your donkey will be there,” she said. “It’s that hope that’s keeping us going.”