Kano/Johannesburg — When the impoverished West African nation of Niger imposed a ban on donkey exports last year, a small community of traders just over the border in Nigeria was devastated.
"Before the ban, you could see thousands of donkeys here," says Mohammed Sani, a trader in the Nigerian town of Jibiya. "Now look at them: there’s no more than 50, crippling the business."
Donkeys are being slaughtered at an alarming pace to feed a global trade in donkey hides that’s fueled by soaring demand in China, where the skins are used to manufacture a gelatin believed to have anti-aging and libido-enhancing properties. The gelatin, known in China as ejiao, is so popular with middle-class consumers that a Chinese producer has created a donkey exchange to help companies find enough hides to keep their factories busy. There are about 3-million donkeys left in China, from 11-million in the early 1990s.
With its large donkey population and close trade relations with China, Africa is a key target for donkey buyers. Annual global sales of the cooked gelatin may be worth as much as $2.6bn, based on the 2014 per-kilogram sales price in China, according to the UK-based charity, The Donkey Sanctuary.
"The skin trade is really something that just came out of nowhere, and it’s the biggest, fastest crisis we’ve seen," says Alex Mayers, a programme manager at The Donkey Sanctuary. "People in poor communities can no longer replace donkeys if they’ve been stolen or slaughtered because the prices are just too high."
Like the poaching of Africa’s rhinos and elephants, and deforestation caused by the largely illicit trade in rosewood timber, the slaughter of donkeys is an unforeseen consequence of rising Chinese incomes and an expanding middle-class. While the global donkey population is estimated to be 44-million, demand is currently thought to be at least 4-million a year, The Donkey Sanctuary said in a report this year.
Donkeys are essential to tens of millions of farmers in Africa’s driest regions, often also the most impoverished, and the skin trade is threatening to upset rural economies that rely heavily on the animals for transporting everything from produce to cattle feed.
"In Kenya, the net economic value of a working donkey is $2,300 a year. If you sell it for slaughter, you get a fraction of that: it will give you an income for a single month," Mayers says. "A donkey is worth a hell of lot more alive than dead."
This is why Niger halted exports of the animal and completely prohibited their slaughtering after it found that donkey exports in the first nine months of 2016 had almost tripled compared to the whole of 2015. In neighbouring Burkina Faso, the doubling of the price of a donkey and the slaughter of 45,000 donkeys out of a population of 1.5-million prompted the government to impose an export ban in August last year.
Mali, Senegal and Gambia followed suit. Zimbabwe, where donkeys are less common, turned down an application to build a donkey slaughterhouse, while Ethiopia closed its only functioning donkey abattoir after residents complained about the stench and pollution.
But large-scale slaughtering continues in many African countries, including Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya, and online sales ads for donkey hides are especially easy to find in Nigeria.
Donkeys don’t reproduce easily and are difficult to breed commercially. "They’ve never been good at being a reproductive species," Mayers says. "It’s not where their value lies."
In Nigeria, some traders have turned to smuggling the animals from Niger. A trader-turned-smuggler says he was recently caught with five donkeys when trying to "sneak into" Nigeria. Border officials from Niger seized the animals and fined him the equivalent of $650, but he says he plans to stay in the trade because "it’s the only business I know".
"Before the ban, I imported a truck packed with donkeys from Niger almost every week and sold them at $44 per donkey," the trader says, whose full name was withheld because of fear of being caught. "Now, the price has risen to $150 or higher."