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Donkey Hide is the New Ivory for the Chinese in Africa

It will likely not come as a surprise to many that once again Chinese consumer demand is responsible for another animal crisis in Africa. Chinese companies don’t want these donkeys for their meat, just the hides that are used as an ingredient in a traditional Chinese medicine known as ejiao (阿胶) which is used to treat a number of different ailments from colds to insomnia.

China’s massive population of middle and upper middle class consumers can now afford to buy these medicinal treatments that not long ago were unattainably expensive. The problem is that China’s donkey population has fallen sharply in recent years, from 11 million to 6 million, and there are just not enough of these animals to both work on China’s farms and supply the market for products like ejiao. This shortage has prompted a number of Chinese companies to embark on a vast global search for new supplies of donkey skins that can be exported back to Asia. From South America to South Asia and in at least half-a-dozen African countries, the effects of this heightened demand for donkeys is having a profound impact on countless rural farmers who depend on these animals for their livelihoods.

The Backlash Begins Anew

This latest animal crisis in Africa resurrects a well-worn narrative that some had hoped was finally dead. Back in the beginning of the year, around the first week of January, there was so much optimism that China’s tortured relationship with Africa on wildlife and conservation issues had finally reached a new, more enlightened level. First there was the surprise announcement that as of next year China would finally ban the domestic trade in ivory. Conservationists who had been pleading, sometimes even fighting with the Chinese for decades rejoiced over Beijing’s decision.  Then, just a few days later, China’s flagship airline, Air China, said it would prohibit the transport of shark fins from Africa as part of a three year old Chinese campaign to halt the illegal killing of sharks in Africa and elsewhere around the world. Again, wildlife activists rejoiced. With these two back-to-back announcements, something felt like it had changed. Global public opinion that was once stridently against the Chinese in Africa began to soften and hostility towards Chinese environmental policy on the continent also receded. Now, amid this new donkey crisis, it’s apparent that the honeymoon is over.

All of the major factions in the China-Africa wildlife debate are seemingly retreating back to their old, bunkered positions. African governments are struggling to find policy remedies to minimize the impact on farmers while trying to push back against illegal poachers who are no doubt salivating over a new, potentially lucrative product. The Chinese government and industry are once again tight lipped, refusing to offer much insight on what, if anything, they plan to do to help. Finally, environmental groups and social media activists, particularly in the west, are once again enraged over what they see as an ongoing pattern of reckless Chinese consumption that is devastating Africa’s animals, wildlife and natural resources.

New Opportunity?

There is no indication that demand for ejiao will dissipate anytime soon in China which means there is an opportunity here for African livestock companies to build a new export business. “There is steady demand for the gelatin,” said Dr. Emmanuel Igbinoba, a research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa . “If African countries can regulate well, with high standard abattoirs, and train people how to rear these animals, the donkey can be an important source of income,” he added in an interview with CNN. Already, the Kenyan government has granted a license for at least one new donkey slaughter house while a second one awaits approval. Similarly, Burkina Faso is also attempting to regulate donkey sales so that it both provides new job opportunities while also stabilizing prices of these animals. However, African policy makers will have to move fast if they want to be effective otherwise organized crime could potentially fill the void as it has done in so many other instances of animal trafficking.

While many international media outlets, including us at The China Africa Project, were slow to recognize just how widespread this issue had become in Africa, now it’s starting to get significant news coverage from outlets including CNN, BBC, K24 TV in Kenya and the online financial news website Quartz among others. Quartz’s Nairobi-based correspondent Lily Kuo has been reporting on the burgeoning donkey crisis since it began in late 2016. She joins Eric & Cobus to explain why the donkey trade has become such an emotional issue, across Africa and abroad, and how communities in Kenya are responding to the crisis.

Show Notes:

About Lily Kuo:

Lily Kuo covers East Africa and China in Africa from Nairobi for Quartz. She previously reported for Quartz from Hong Kong. Before that she covered general news for Reuters in New York and the Los Angeles Times in Beijing. She holds a dual master’s degree in International Affairs from the London School of Economics and Peking University, as well as degrees in English and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kuo won the 2014 SABEW award for best international feature for a series on China’s water crisis.

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