Ejiao was once prescribed primarily to supplement lost blood and balance yin and yang, but today it is sought for a range of ills, from delaying aging and increasing libido to treating side effects of chemotherapy and preventing infertility, miscarriage and menstrual irregularity in women.
While ejiao has been around for centuries, its modern popularity began to grow around 2010, when companies such as Dong-E-E-Jiao — the largest manufacturer in China — launched aggressive advertising campaigns. Fifteen years ago, ejiao sold for $9 per pound in China; now, it fetches around $400 per pound.
As demand increased, China’s donkey population — once the world’s largest — has fallen to fewer than six million from 11 million, and by some estimates possibly to as few as three million. Attempts to replenish the herds have proved challenging: Unlike cows or pigs, donkeys do not lend themselves to intensive breeding. Females produce just one foal per year and are prone to spontaneous abortions under stressful conditions.
So Chinese companies have begun buying donkey skins from developing nations. Out of a global population of 44 million, around 1.8 million donkeys are slaughtered per year to produce ejiao, according to a report published last year by the Donkey Sanctuary, a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom.
“There’s a huge appetite for ejiao in China that shows no signs of diminishing,” said Simon Pope, manager of rapid response and campaigns for the organization. “As a result, donkeys are being Hoovered out of communities that depend on them.”
In November, researchers at the Beijing Forestry University warned that China’s demand for ejiao may cause donkeys “to become the next pangolin.”
“China chooses to import donkeys from all over the world at high cost, which may lead to potential crisis of donkeys throughout the rest of the world,” the researchers wrote in the Equine Veterinary Journal.
Donkey skins find their way to China from nations as varied as Kyrgyzstan, Brazil and Mexico. But Africa is the epicenter of the trade, both in terms of the number of animals killed and the impact on the ground.
“In 2016, this business of donkeys erupted,” said Obassy Nguvillah, a police superintendent in Tanzania’s Monduli district, near the Kenyan border. “There were increasing numbers of cases of guys passing into the Maasai area, taking people’s donkeys and transporting them to the Chinese-owned processing plant.”
In Esilalei — a village located on a sprawling, drought-plagued savanna under Mr. Nguvillah’s watch — residents lost nearly 475 donkeys in a single year. While about 175 of the animals were recovered by tracking the thieves into the bush, police believe the remainder were sold to slaughterhouses. Unable to afford replacements, the former owners are still reeling.
“Nowadays, we are no longer happy because our vehicles, our donkeys, are no longer here,” said Katasi Moko, who was left with just one donkey after four others were stolen.
With five donkeys, Ms. Moko was able to complete two tasks each day: collecting water from distant wells, say, or gathering firewood. But with just one donkey, she has time to accomplish just one, because several back-and-forth trips are needed.
“Our workload has increased,” she said.
Fourteen African countries, along with Pakistan, have enacted various bans against the international donkey trade. Tanzania joined the list in June, citing concerns that its donkeys would soon be wiped out if the slaughter continued.
Rimoinet Shamburi, chairman of Esilalei village, said that donkey thefts have decreased since the ban but have not ceased altogether. He believes the legal trade in Kenya is to blame.
“Things are still bad because there’s an industry in Nairobi that’s supporting the stealing of donkeys,” he said.
‘They Come From All Over’
Unlike Tanzania, Kenya’s donkey skin trade shows no signs of slowing. In 2016, prices for skins were fifty times higher than in 2014, while prices for live donkeys have nearly tripled, from about $60 to $165.
The country’s three abattoirs — all of which have Chinese owners or partners — reported processing just under 100,000 donkeys in two years, according to a government memo. Both skin and meat are exported to China, usually through Vietnam or Hong Kong.