The Ejiao Trade

Veterinarians from The Donkey Sanctuary attend a dying donkey in Brazil
Veterinarians from The Donkey Sanctuary attend a dying donkey in Brazil

Published Jun 22, 2019 6:55 PM by Wendy Laursen

Donkeys are naturally silent carriers of a range of diseases that could be transported around the world, but this hasn't curtailed the international ejiao trade. Instead, the global donkey population is now at risk.

Donkeys are routinely being slaughtered in huge numbers worldwide to meet the increasing demand for their skins, which are used to produce the Chinese remedy ejiao. This gelatin product is used to treat a variety of conditions including bleeding, dizziness, insomnia and a dry cough.

Traders have been targeting donkey-dependent communities in Africa for the last five years to meet Chinese demand, but available supply is dwindling. In Africa, infectious disease has plagued the equine population, with reports of thousands of donkey fatalities occurring already this year. These deaths have further depleted populations already suffering the cost of indiscriminate, and often illegal, slaughter for their skins.

So, traders are looking further afield, and Brazil’s large feral donkey population is being systematically targeted. Recent reports of donkeys destined for the ejiao trade being starved in holding pens in Brazil have highlighted both animal welfare and human health concerns.

The Donkey Sanctuary released video and images of hundreds of starving and dying animals being hoarded at a farm in Brazil earlier this year. Sanctuary veterinarians had provided urgent care to sick and injured donkeys at the farm located in Bahia, Brazil. While hundreds had already died, their efforts prevented the deaths of nearly 500 others. 

Warning, some viewers may find this footage disturbing.

The charity warned that more donkeys are being corralled at other farms. At the end of 2018, following some horrific cases of dead and dying donkeys on other similar farms, a country-wide ban on the slaughter of donkeys for their skins came into effect. This has not stopped traders from tracking down and corralling more donkeys in the hope that the ban will be lifted and the trade, including the shipping of hides out of Sao Paolo port, can resume.

Simon Pope, campaigns manager at The Donkey Sanctuary who led the team in Brazil, said: “The donkeys were being kept in appalling conditions, having been transported for days in filthy, airless lorries with no food and water. We cradled small sick foals in our arms as they passed away – foals just a few weeks’ old who should never have been swept up for the skin trade and whose mothers had rejected them due to stress or who had died from the effects of it.  

“This farm is just the tip of the iceberg. While we were in Brazil, we heard of another three similar farms in the vicinity, all full of donkeys,” said Pope.

Gabriel was just one of over 700 donkeys destined for the skin trade and abandoned in a holding pen in Brazil. Warning, some viewers may find this footage disturbing.

On World Donkey Day (May 8), the International Coalition for Working Equids (ICWE) welcomed the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (OIE) statement calling for better protection of the welfare of donkeys at risk from the global skin trade. The OIE stated that: “Considering the impact and consequences of the increased global demand and trade of donkeys and their products, the OIE encourages its members to implement international standards, not only to protect donkey health and welfare, but also to safeguard the livelihoods that depend on them.”

Roly Owers, current chair of ICWE, says: “World Donkey Day exists for a reason: these animals are intrinsic to the livelihoods of many millions of people. So we welcome the OIE’s statement highlighting the need for OIE standards on welfare, biosecurity, transport and slaughter to be implemented.”

As part of its mandate, the OIE develops international Standards aimed at improving animal health and welfare worldwide. Over 180 nations, including Brazil, are OIE member countries. 

OIE's Terrestrial Animal Health Code has a specific chapter on Welfare of Working Equids which was adopted by member countries in 2016. Even if they were not specifically developed for equids used to produce meat or other products, the OIE says many of the standards can be implemented to improve the management of their living conditions and the treatment of their diseases and injuries. 

In addition, the OIE has developed international standards that cover the welfare of animals during transport (by sea, land or air). The OIE Terrestrial Code specifies in its glossary that “an animal transport journey commences when the first animal is loaded onto a vehicle/vessel or into a container and ends when the last animal is unloaded, and includes any stationary resting/holding periods. The same animals do not commence a new journey until after a suitable period for rest and recuperation, with adequate feed and water.” 

The OIE says that animals in poor conditions and in unhygienic environments are more susceptible to diseases that can place animal and public health at risk and notes that research has been undertaken at an international level establishing a link between animal stress and a decrease in their immunity. “The trade of donkeys and their products, such as skins, can also expose the global domestic and wild animals and humans to many infectious diseases if OIE international Standards are not implemented to ensure a safe trade.”

Because of their importance to international trade, diseases such as African horse sickness, rabies, equine infectious anemia, equine viral arteritis, equine encephalomyelitis, piroplasmosis, and others, are on the OIE list of notifiable animal diseases. Donkeys are naturally silent carriers of many of these diseases making the discrimination between infected and healthy animals very difficult without appropriate tests. 

Donkey skin in particular can also be a source of many infectious agents, as it can be affected by skin diseases. Skins flayed in remote areas can easily be contaminated with soil-born infectious agents which are highly resistant to extreme temperatures and chemicals. This includes B. anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, which may not be affected by the treatment of the skins. Apart from infecting people directly involved in slaughtering and skin processing, there is a probability that these zoonotic agents are imported with the skin or other products and infect people at their destination if adequate measures are not taken to reduce this risk, says the OIE. 

The OIE is holding a workshop on the welfare of equids in Brazil in September 2019. The ICWE is supporting this initiative as well as the creation of a series of educational videos which provide recommendations on feeding and provision of water, shelter, handling and management practices, among other topics.