African Union Bans Donkey-Hide Trade in Response to Unsustainable Chinese Demand 

At a recent summit in Ethiopia, the African Union (AU) decided to approve a 15-year continent-wide ban on the slaughter of donkeys for their hides. Donkey hides are a key component of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ingredient known as ejiao (“donkey-hide gelatin”), whose demand in China has boomed over the past decade and decimated donkey populations in Africa. The Donkey Sanctuary, one of the world’s largest equine charity organizations, celebrated the announcement and described its significance

This historic decision taken by the African Union recognises, at the highest level of decision making, the vital importance of donkeys across Africa. The African Heads of State agreed the landmark moratorium on Sunday 18th February during the 37th African Union Summit in Ethiopia. The milestone agreement will not only help protect the continent’s 33 million donkeys from being stolen, trafficked and slaughtered, it will also safeguard tens of thousands of communities across Africa that rely on donkeys for their wellbeing and livelihoods. The outcome of the AU Summit follows publication of new figures from The Donkey Sanctuary which show that globally, at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered for their skins every year to meet demand for the traditional Chinese remedy ejiao. As demand for ejiao escalates, donkeys in Africa face a very real existential threat. [Source]

Part of China’s increased demand for ejiao stems from efforts to market the traditional medical ingredient to more people and use it in more products. While Chinese demand accounts for the slaughter of over five million donkeys annually, only two million are supplied from China, with the rest imported from abroad. At The New York Times, Elian Peltier, Keith Bradsher, and Siyi Zhao described China’s role in the donkey trade and its negative impact on diplomatic relations:

China is the main trading partner for many African countries. But in recent years its companies have been increasingly criticized for depleting the continent’s natural resources, from minerals to fish and now donkey skins, a censure once largely aimed at Western countries. “This trade is undermining the mutual development talks between China and African countries,” said Lauren Johnston, an expert on China-Africa relations and an associate professor at the University of Sydney. Some Chinese companies or local intermediaries buy and slaughter donkeys legally, but government officials have also dismantled clandestine slaughterhouses. […] Beijing has been unusually quiet about the African Union’s ban on donkey hide exports, even though it has criticized other measures to stop the flow of goods into China, including restrictions recently imposed by the West on the export of semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China. [Source]

Donkeys in rural Africa not only help alleviate poverty but also play a central role in the empowerment of women and girls, by freeing them to attend school rather than remain at home to support domestic labor needs. Lauren Johnston, an academic at the Universities of Adelaide and Sydney, has closely tracked these issues. In her recent paper “China, Africa, and the Market for Donkeys: Sample of Ejiao’s Bitter Aftertaste in Africa,” Johnston traces the rise of ejiao into a mega-industry and the resulting socioeconomic complexity of the China-Africa donkey trade. In a report published last year, titled “China, Africa and the Market for Donkeys: Keeping the Cart Behind the Donkey,” Johnston also highlighted the consequences of the donkey trade for China’s own rural, poor, or sick citizens:

The modern donkey trade shifts the distribution of welfare gains and losses not only in Africa but also in China. Elderly farmers in harsh Chinese environmental conditions have experienced a similar loss of access to donkeys. In 2017 USA Today interviewed Chinese farmer Ma Yufa, who grows vegetables on steep mountain terraces, a terrain unsuited to tractors. Farming much the way his ancestors did, Ma noted that when he was young his family relied heavily on their donkey. His own donkey, however, died in 2014, and he was unable to replace her: ‘There aren’t any donkeys left. We have killed them all.’   Beyond agricultural communities, even Chinese consumers are feeling the adverse effects of China’s ejiao boom. As ejiao prices rise, fewer patients can afford the genuine product for its blood cleaning and other properties. Instead they are ‘fobbed off with wellness candies that have no medical efficacy’. Ejiao may be one of the three great treasures of TCM, alongside deer horn and ginseng, but when it becomes a symbol of ostentatious consumption it cannot always benefit those most in need, even in China itself. [Source]

In an op-ed for the South China Morning Post, Peter J. Li argued that the donkey trade harms China’s reputation in Africa and that Beijing can help crack down on the inflated Chinese demand:

It is in China’s national interest to join the African Union in stopping donkey skin imports. The cruelty of the trade is such that no “panda diplomacy” can mend the damage it has caused to China’s reputation. It does not project the “lovable” image that the Chinese leadership would like to cultivate. The donkey skin trade could overshadow or diminish the significance of China’s debt relief efforts in favour of some African countries, instead creating or reinforcing the image of Chinese businesses which, while capitalising on their country’s massive business presence on the continent, cannot care less about the livelihoods of the poor in their efforts to grab African resources to create demand for high-end products. Ejiao, like other “cure-all” remedies made from wild animal parts or bodily fluid, is a supply-driven product. Produced to meet “demand” that never existed in China on today’s scale, ejiao is a textbook example of how demand can be artificially inflated by the business interests concerned. [Source]

Despite reasons to pursue a more responsible level of ejiao consumption, there are signs that Chinese companies and consumers are instead seeking other sources of supply to meet their enormous demand. The Chinese state-media-affiliated outlet Yicai reported that one of China’s major ejiao-selling TCM companies, Dong-E-E-Jiao, said it will not be affected by the AU’s ban, adding that Pakistan’s Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces have built donkey farms that specialize in breeding donkeys for anticipated export to China. However, as Cobus van Staden stated in a column for the China-Global South Project, the AU ban demonstrates a notable and inspiring example of African agency in the face of Chinese demand for valuable resources, which could be replicated elsewhere in the Global South:

[T]he ejiao industry depends on an inherently finite resource. It’s sucking up donkeys at a rate that’s impossible to replace and taking entire rural economies with it. The African Union’s ban is a massive step towards arresting that slide. It is also a remarkable gesture of African agency against the short-termist logic of “if anyone anywhere wants to buy anything in Africa, the continent had better step up immediately” – a logic that is currently leading to huge exports of unrefined critical mineral ore, with minimal profit to Africa. It remains to be seen how member states will react to the AU’s ruling – the ban will be an interesting test cast of the traditionally weak body’s power of implementation. But the thought leadership role of the ban is already having effect. Brazil – after Africa the second-largest source of donkey skins to China – is reportedly preparing a similar ban. [Source]


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