Advocates warn that demand for a traditional Chinese medicine product called ejiao is leading to the mass slaughter of donkeys in Africa — and impacting the communities that rely on them.
Ejiao is made from the collagen harvested from the hides of donkeys. It’s sold as a powder or gelatinous block that can then be made into a tea, and is purported to have health benefits targeted at women, including around menstruation and as a blood tonic.
However, the ejiao industry requires millions of donkeys each year, and is currently harvesting much of that number from Africa, where many communities rely on them as beasts of burden. A study by U.K. charity The Donkey Sanctuary found that Botswana’s donkey population fell by more than a third between 2011 and 2017.
The use of collagen in the global beauty industry is also under scrutiny, with a recent investigation linking the celebrity-endorsed, billion-dollar industry to deforestation and the invasion of Indigenous lands in the Amazon.
The Current’s guest host Mark Kelley spoke with Sian Edwards, campaigns manager at The Donkey Sanctuary in the U.K., about her organization’s work in finding more sustainable alternatives. Here is part of their conversation.
With the harvesting of this, what are you seeing as the impact on the donkey population?
The demand in the multi-billion pound ejiao industry is so great, there simply aren’t enough donkeys. Certainly not in China, where the majority of ejiao is sold.
The industry requires about 5 million donkeys, so the producers of ejiao go around the globe and they basically extract donkeys from where there are higher donkey populations.
Donkeys aren’t farmed very easily, they don’t reproduce like cattle or sheep might, but they are used for people’s livelihoods. So they go to countries where there are high numbers of donkeys in communities — precisely because the donkeys are needed — and those donkeys are sometimes willingly sold, but very often stolen or trafficked as well, and then slaughtered in-country. And then their skins are exported to China to be made into ejiao.
So that’s having a huge crisis for people, never mind the donkey welfare. It’s really causing people who depend on donkeys for their livelihoods a huge problem. And children are getting pulled out of school to do the donkey work, and inevitably it falls to women to pick up the work that the donkeys would otherwise have done.
I’m hearing that the focus has been on the African continent. So tell me more about the impact of the loss of donkeys, that [it] has on communities in Africa.
You can imagine all the jobs that donkeys do for communities — where they need to have donkeys to collect water, to take their goods to market. If those donkeys are gone from communities, then literally there is no way for the families to sustain themselves. And they lose their income and potentially, as I say, have to withdraw children out of education if they’re being educated, because the workforce is needed. I must also say it’s not just Africa, this is a global issue.
How many donkeys … are killed to support this industry?
From extrapolation from the ejiao industry’s own figures, we reckon about 5 million donkeys every year are needed, and the demand is growing. So we can see that number increasing.
Is that any way sustainable?
It’s not sustainable. That’s exactly the problem that the industry has.
Once the donkey population’s depleted somewhere, they have to go somewhere else. There just simply aren’t enough donkeys. And as I mentioned before, they just don’t breed very well. China has tried to put a donkey breeding program in place, and they can produce some, but not enough for the demand that the industry requires.
The good news is there are humane alternatives available. The cellular agriculture industry, for example, is already being used in terms of collagen and animal protein food and also in some instances, pharmaceuticals. So we see that as a potential area of growth to help provide enough collagen in a humane, clean and sustainable way for the ejiao industry.
Are the companies hearing your alarm call here?
We are doing our best at the Donkey Sanctuary to have meaningful conversations with the ejiao producers, so we can discuss these possible alternatives with them and hopefully see the trade and industry become sustainable, which they say themselves that’s what they want. But as of yet we aren’t seeing any outcomes to show that that’s happening.
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