Every year, China slaughters millions of donkeys to make Ejiao, a traditional medicine hailed as a ‘miracle elixir’ which is used to treat various ailments. As China’s donkey population plummets, Chinese firms are now forced to turn to African donkeys – at the risk of wiping them out. Our correspondents in China and Kenya – Elodie Cousin, Bastien Renouil, Antoine Vedeilhe and Charlie Wang – went to investigate.
Warning: Viewers may find some of these images upsetting.
Ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine used for nearly 2,000 years, had almost disappeared. But in the past few years, it’s made a comeback on pharmacy shelves and in other Chinese wellness stores. With claims it can thin the blood, reduce the effects of chemotherapy or even improve libido, the Chinese can’t get enough of this supposed miracle remedy. But it’s expensive, costing up to €600 a kilo. Although it can be consumed in drinks, cakes or even pills, the main ingredient required for its preparation never varies: gelatine extracted from donkey skins.
In the space of 25 years, China’s donkey population has fallen by half. Due to strong demand for Ejiao from the country’s emerging middle class, there are now only five million donkeys left in the country. The industrial firms at the centre of this lucrative trade have now turned to a new source of donkeys: Africa.
Donkeys threatened with extinction in Kenya
But China’s appetite for Ejiao is putting Africa’s donkey populations at risk. Satisfying market demand would require up to ten million of them per year, but there are only 44 million donkeys on the planet. Several countries, such as Niger or Tanzania, have had no choice but to ban the trade in donkey skins. But abuse is widespread. Some traders import donkeys illegally from countries where their slaughter is banned, while others go so far as to steal farm animals, even attacking them at night in their pens.
Our reporters in Kenya followed the trail of Ejiao in the country, which currently has around 1.8 million donkeys. Since 2016, three specialised slaughterhouses owned by Chinese entrepreneurs have opened and tens of thousands of animals are killed there every year. Their skins are then sent by container ship to Hong Kong, via the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Animal welfare NGOs are sounding the alarm. At this rate, within six years, the donkey – a beast of burden essential for work in the fields – could disappear from Kenya altogether.