Ejiao (eh-gee-yow) is one of the most valuable ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is believed to have medicinal and rejuvenating effects and is frequently added to anti-aging products, used to treat anemia and reproductive problems, and believed to cure dry cough, and boost libido. It’s even added to Coronavirus treatments. Made from gelatin extracted from donkey skins, it is decimating the donkey population around the world.
According to a 2016 report from Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, around 4 million donkey hides are needed each year to produce enough ejiao for the market in China, but the annual supply of donkeys from China is fewer than 1.8 million. China’s domestic donkey population has collapsed by 76 percent since 1992, and the country imports most of the donkey skins it uses, mainly from traders in South America, Africa and Asia.
There are many pressing issues created by the often illegal trade in donkeys:
- Donkey populations cannot keep up with the demand. Donkeys have a long gestation period and are difficult to breed in large groups.
- The slaughter of donkeys to harvest their hides is often done in inhumane conditions, with little or no animal welfare standards or supervision. Demand for skins is so high that even pregnant mares, young foals, and sick and injured donkeys are being sourced and slaughtered.
- Donkeys support the livelihoods of an estimated 500 million people in some of the world’s poorest communities serving as a pathway out of poverty. They transport goods to market, carry water and wood, provide access to education and are a vital source of income for vulnerable communities, particularly women. Losing access to donkeys potentially plunges families into unrecoverable poverty, and with demand for donkey skins so high, thousands of donkeys are stolen every year.
- With skins in such high demand, prices for donkeys have doubled, tripled or quadrupled so owners can’t replace donkeys they have sold or buy new ones if their donkeys are stolen. In Kenya, for example, prices jumped from $40 per animal to over $160 from February to August 2017.
- The unregulated slaughter of donkeys creates a high risk of the spread of infectious diseases across the globe. Inadequate hygiene in the transport and slaughter of donkeys increase risks to human health from zoonotic diseases such as anthrax and tetanus and potentially infect communities on the trade routes.
Some countries are taking a stand against the donkey trade. Botswana, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gambia all impose restrictions on it, while Zimbabwean authorities blocked a private donkey slaughterhouse under construction and Ethiopia closed its only functioning abattoir.
Kenya temporarily banned the slaughter of donkeys and the export of their skins, but that ban was recently lifted. Before the ban, more than 300,000 donkeys were killed between 2016 and 2018 — 15.4% of the donkey population. With the donkey population increasing just 1% annually, lifting of the ban has reignited fears that donkeys will become extinct in that country.
The donkey population in Botswana has decreased 39 percent from 229,000 in 2014 to 142,000 in 2016, according to SPANA. In early 2018, SPANA staff in Mali reported that 2,000 donkeys were being sold for slaughter every week at the country’s seven major livestock markets.
“The rate of decline we’re witnessing in the donkey populations of some African countries is dramatic and unsustainable,” says Geoffrey Dennis, chief executive of SPANA, a charity that seeks to improve the welfare of working animals in poor communities.
“In taking away someone’s donkey, it can mean taking away their means of making a living, potentially for a dangerously long time,” said Petra Ingram, chief executive of the Donkey Sanctuary.
It is unlikely that consumers of ejiao will ever believe that there is no documented proof that the ingredient has any medicinal effect. To protect donkeys and the people who depend on them, it’s essential that the ejiao industry puts in place humane and sustainable ways of meeting the industry’s needs.
One potential source for collagen is the cellular agriculture industry, which is making progress in artificially-grown donkey-derived collagen. A company called Jellatech has announced the first cell-based gelatin and collagen products that are produced from animal cells, without requiring animals. Another company, Geltor, has raised $116.3 million in their quest to grow animal-free collagen proteins.
Let’s just hope that these companies can provide a sustainable, controlled and hygenic supply of collagen and gelatin products that do not compromise the welfare of donkeys and the welfare of the people who depend on them.
To visit some of the organizations involved with donkey welfare, go to:
The Donkey Sanctuary: A UK based charity that works to transform the lives of donkeys across the world.
Brooke: An international charity that protects and improves the lives of horses, donkeys and mules which give people in the developing world the opportunity to work their way out of poverty.
SPANA: An international charity whose mission is to improve the welfare of working animals in the world’s poorest communities through treating, training and teaching.