29 Apr 2024

Fauna / Will the African Union’s new ban end the gruesome donkey skin trade?

The ban signals a pivotal shift in Africa’s approach to combating this cruel form of transnational organised crime.

African leaders have banned the donkey skin trade. The historic continent-wide ban, which outlaws killing these animals for their skin, marks a crucial step in safeguarding Africa’s 33 million donkeys from theft, trafficking, and slaughter.

Adopted at the 37th African Union (AU) Summit on 18 February, the ban is also a step towards ensuring the welfare and sustenance of communities across Africa who depend on these animals.

The trade has become a global challenge with rising demand from China for the gelatin extracted from donkey skins, popularly known as ejiao – a traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ believed to cure a range of illnesses, with unverified efficacy. Around 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered annually worldwide to meet the escalating demand for ejiao, which is also used to make food and beauty products.

The cruel trade is detrimental to African communities, where donkeys are an important asset to about 158 million people. These placid creatures have long been valued as loyal companions, a critical means of transport. They are vital work animals used for carrying goods, tilling the land, and pulling water from wells. With declining numbers, it reduces and shifts the burden of hard labour to women and children in rural communities.

Eliot Nsega, with the AU Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), told ENACT that donkeys endured relentless and unimaginable cruelty through the trade. They are violently seized, crammed into overcrowded, unsanitary transport over long distances, and left terrified and neglected before being slaughtered.

The AU’s ban represents a critical step towards addressing a complex and multifaceted criminal enterprise

With the projected demand for donkey skins at an estimated 6.8 million by 2027, ‘the AU’s ban on this brutal and unethical trade cannot come early enough’, according to Janneke Merkx, Campaign Manager at The Donkey Sanctuary, an international organisation that works to improve the well-being of donkeys.

The AU’s moratorium follows years of sustained activism in Africa and Asia against the donkey trade. The industry is outlawed in countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire. Despite this, porous borders, uneven and misaligned regional trade regulations, and limited enforcement capacities have led to a sharp decline in the donkey population.

During the 4th Africa Animal Welfare Conference in 2020, there was a call to action for African governments to agree to the continent-wide protection of donkeys. In December 2022, participants attending a Pan-African Donkey Conference organised by AU-IBAR unanimously agreed on the need for immediate action.

Similarly, the Dar-Es-Salam Declaration on Donkey Preservation pushed for an AU resolution on a 15-year suspension of commercial donkey slaughter for skins and other derivatives. It also proposed establishing an African strategy focusing on exploitation, production, and productivity issues regarding the animals.

The Pan-African Donkey Conference report, ‘Donkeys in Africa Now and in the Future’, was approved at the November 2023 AU Specialised Technical Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Environment. The decision was endorsed by the AU Executive Council and then at the AU Summit.

Member states must engage with shipping and airline companies to establish a policy prohibiting the transportation of donkey skins

Key points of the ban include a 15-year moratorium on the commercial slaughter of donkeys for their skin across all member states and the development of a comprehensive Africa Donkey Strategy to address the long-term challenges associated with the trade.

While the decision represents a positive step, implementing it effectively poses substantial challenges. Each member state is required to develop and enforce clear regulations and invest adequate resources for monitoring and enforcement, including tracking the movement of donkeys and identifying illicit trading routes. This may involve leveraging satellite imagery and GPS tracking technology to gather real-time intelligence on suspicious activities.

Nsega believes a successful ban does not require tracking every single donkey. By focusing on high-risk areas and leveraging a combination of strategies, enforcement efforts can become more targeted and cost-effective. Boosting enforcement efforts, several international organisations have pledged to help AU member states ensure effective compliance with the donkey skin trade ban.

Dr Solomon Onyango, Country Director of The Donkey Sanctuary in Kenya, said the widespread nature of the trade, encompassing multiple countries and involving sophisticated criminal networks, will be the primary obstacle for both the AU and member states. Reports show that the illegal trade in donkey skins converges with trafficking protected wildlife and illicit drugs. Limited resources and capacity constraints present significant hurdles in detecting and prosecuting these crimes.

States will have to address the cross-border nature of the trade. This requires strong regional cooperation among member states, including sharing information, coordinating enforcement efforts, addressing the challenge of porous borders exploited by criminal networks, and engaging with shipping, cargo and freight companies on actions to prohibit the transportation of donkey skins. This ban will likely force criminal enterprises to adapt, so anticipating this will be crucial to the response to prevent and disrupt the trade.

Simply banning the trade without providing viable alternatives could lead to economic hardship

While the focus of the ban is on controlling the supply side in Africa, tackling the demand for skins in destination countries is equally important for the long-term sustainability of the ongoing legal trade, says Onyango. He believes the AU can play a vital role in fostering international dialogue and collaboration to address this aspect.

The prohibition on the commercial slaughter of donkeys for their hides over the 15-year moratorium is intended to provide time for AU-IBAR, in partnership with animal welfare groups, to develop a comprehensive strategy for donkey breeding and productivity in Africa.

Investing in improved animal welfare standards and promoting responsible donkey ownership practices can contribute to the overall well-being of these vital animals.

The AU’s ban represents a critical step towards addressing a complex and multifaceted criminal enterprise. While it may be challenging to implement, the next 15 years will demonstrate the AU and the RECs’ commitment and collaboration to enforcing the ban on donkey skin.

Dr Feyi Ogunade, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, West Africa, and Dr Ndubuisi Christian Ani, Senior Researcher and Project Coordinator


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