Windhoek-Donkeys, draught animals that are rarely spoken of with the same passion extended to small and large livestock, are suddenly at the centre of discussions in the Namibian public discourse. So much so that the British charitable organisation The Donkey Sanctuary has gotten involved in the discourse with organisation members being in the country since last week to engage local authorities and the public in Okahandja and Outjo, where Chinese nationals, in conjunction with local entrepreneurs, have expressed interest to set up donkey abattoirs.
The Namibia SPCA is also involved with the SPCA Windhoek chief executive officer Monique Redecker saying their involvement initially was purely for the animal’s welfare, but they have since come to realise that the issue at hand presents a “bigger picture [that goes] beyond the SPCA mandate”.
Redecker, drawing from experiences from other African countries that have since banned the trade and export of donkey skins and donkey products, speaks of how the trade in donkey skins has a direct impact on people who rely on donkeys for their livelihood.
Namibia’s neighbour Botswana became the latest country to ban the export of donkey skins and donkey products after it learnt of serious problems that came with allowing so-called Chinese investors to export donkey skins.
Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Niger and many Asian countries have all now banned the export of donkey skins and any other donkey products.
Namibia has no regulations to govern the movement of donkeys. And according to the agriculture ministry the country currently does not have an agreed health certificate between Namibia and Vietnam – the third party country through which donkey skins are exported to China – for the export of donkey products. As such no approval can be given to any entrepreneur to export donkey meat and products to such a country if there is no health certificate in place.
Entrepreneurs and businesses can however apply for the health certificate and will be required to meet some sort of requirements before they are allowed to export donkey products. China is buying up the global donkey supply to meet her runaway internal demand for a traditional remedy tonic, ‘ejiao’, believed to improve blood circulation and the immune system, cure dizziness, insomnia, irregular menstruation, and is also used as a ‘wake-me-up’ booster.
It is believed that China now only has a population of 3 million donkeys – in 2014 China was said to have 6 million donkeys and in the 1990s China had 11 million donkeys. The world is estimated to have about 40 million donkeys but China needs to kill at least 10 million donkeys each year to have the skin to make its medicine.
According to Alexander Mayers, the programme head at The Donkey Sanctuary, China’s trade in donkey skins has left many African countries with no donkeys, with the number of donkeys declining at a fast rate, leaving people who depend on donkeys with no draught animals.
Two Chinese companies are trying to set up abattoirs for donkey meat in Namibia – one at Okahandja and the other at Outjo. Each claims it would slaughter between 70 and 100 donkeys per day. That means each abattoir would kill nearly 17,640 donkeys every year, and together the two abattoirs would kill 35,280 donkeys every year.
Officially the population of donkeys in Namibia is estimated at 200,000, but The Donkey Sanctuary estimates Namibia’s donkey population at 159,000. Based on these figures the two abattoirs would only be able to be in operation for four years, before all donkeys in Namibia are slaughtered. The presumption is that if the government allows the Chinese companies to put up the two donkey abattoirs, Namibia would not have a single donkey roaming the streets by the year 2021.
“This is because a donkey takes a year to give birth. Then the small donkey would need another couple of years to grow and be able to give birth to another donkey,” says Mayers.
Morgane James, the training unit manager and national senior inspector with the National Council of the SPCA in South Africa, says what all other African countries have witnessed is that in allowing the setting up of abattoirs to trade in donkey skins, other illegal activities are spawned.
In South Africa, where the government has allowed three legal donkey abattoirs to operate, villages are now reporting cases of donkey theft. James spoke of one village in the North West Province, where donkeys are stolen at night and slaughtered in the bush.
“Villagers are finding carcasses of skinned donkeys, left with their meat intact, to rot in the bush,” said James.
In Kenya, which is the only African country allowing the export of donkey skins, the price of a donkey has jumped from N$895 in February to N$1,700 per donkey to date. Burkina Faso banned the export of donkey skins last year, after the price of a donkey jumped from N$55 to N$690 per donkey in three months.
Such high prices force unemployed young people to start stealing donkeys. In South Africa villages are refusing to allow traders to buy donkeys, but donkeys keep disappearing anyway, because the money offered by illegal traders lures the donkey thieves to steal donkeys.
“We have hundreds of cases reported over stolen or missing donkeys. We are working with the police but it is difficult to trace the illegal traders. The donkeys have simply disappeared,” says James.
In Namibia the reality is that the police are not likely to demand that the person carrying a donkey carcass or skin produces the permit for the meat or skin. Police tend to be only concerned with permits for livestock or game meat. Also, many donkeys are not branded like other livestock. So it would be difficult for one to prove ownership of the donkey. Further, a person can easily transport a donkey across the veterinary cordon fence because the veterinary inspectors do not really concern themselves with donkeys.