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China has a donkey shortage — and why it matters

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/17/2017 Hannah Gardner
A Pakistani custom official stands guard beside confiscated donkey hides in Karachi that were set to be illegally exported to China, on April 27, 2017. © Asif Hassan, AFP/Getty Images A Pakistani custom official stands guard beside confiscated donkey hides in Karachi that were set to be illegally exported to China, on April 27, 2017.

BEIJING — Chinese farmer Ma Yufa grows vegetables on steep terraces in the mountains north of here — the type of terrain better suited for a donkey instead of a tractor. 

But Ma, 80, who lives much the way his ancestors did, said his last donkey died in 2014, and he couldn't replace her. “There aren’t any donkeys left,” Ma said sadly. “We’ve killed them all.”

China is in the grip of a massive donkey shortage caused by soaring demand for e’jiao — a traditional medicine made by boiling donkey skin. Demand for e’jiao has doubled since 2010, hitting nearly 15 million pounds a year in 2015, according to the national e’jiao association.

The substance was once affordable only by royalty, because one donkey yields 2.2 pounds of e'jiao. 

Only 30 years ago, China had 11 million donkeys — the largest herd in the world — but the number has dwindled to between 3 million and 5 million, despite intensive breeding programs.

“The e’jiao trade is unsustainable in its current form,” said Alex Mayers, with the British-based Donkey Sanctuary animal charity.

In late June, Botswana became the latest country to ban the export of donkey skins in response to reports of hundreds of animals being killed every week.

E’jiao makers, mostly based in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, deny their product is causing the donkey shortage. They claim they are creating a new role for the animal in the modern world. They also say farmers in China and around the world can get rich by breeding donkeys for them.

“E’jiao is one of traditional Chinese medicine's three great treasures, along with deer horn and ginseng,” said Liu Guangyuan, vice chairman of China’s largest e’jiao producers, Dong’e E’jiao.

E’jiao's history is traced to at least the second century B.C. By the 19th century, a royal concubine named Ci Xi used the medicine to prevent her from miscarrying, and her son became emperor of China.

Today the smelly, brown gelatin is marketed as a cure for dementia, infertility and respiratory problems, among other ailments. And the high price doesn’t stop people from buying it. One block made in 2007 was valued at $47 a gram, more expensive than gold.

China has a long tradition of using rare and expensive animal parts in food and medicine: wine from tiger bones, soup from shark’s fin and medicine from pangolinscales. China is also home to the world's largest ivory market, though the government has promised to close all carving factories and shops by the end of the year.

“Why do the Chinese believe all the world's resources are theirs to ravage and destroy?” asked Marjorie Farabee, of the Texas-based Wild Horse Freedom Federation. Her organization said American wild burros are illegally shipped to Mexico for slaughter and then sold to China.

Some countries see opportunity in China’s growing demand. Government officials from the Pakistani province where Osama bin Laden was killed recently visited Beijing to export donkeys along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — part of China's plan for a revived Silk Road.

Although Pakistan is one of nine countries that banned the export of donkey skins for religious reasons, the province is offering to export about 80,000 live donkeys a year, said Asul Khan, deputy director of livestock and dairy development for the province.  

“With investment in breeding centers, we could export more,” he added.

Pakistan implemented the ban on donkey skins because the mostly Muslim population feared the remaining meat could be passed off as beef and sold in markets. Donkey meat is forbidden in most Muslim cultures.

There is another reason for the donkey shortage besides the high demand: They aren't very fertile.

Donkeys are pregnant for up to 14 months, females tend to give birth to one foal at a time, and most are needed for work, so owners don’t let them breed. That's why there are only 44 million donkeys worldwide.

China may be consuming donkeys faster than they can be replaced. 

When Tanzania banned donkey slaughters in May, the minister of agriculture, livestock and fisheries, Charles Tizeba, told parliament the animal was facing “extinction” without action.

Ethiopia introduced a ban this year and is currently battling to shut down two Chinese-owned slaughterhouses after local protests. In Niger, one of five other African nations with bans in place, the price of a donkey rose four-fold to $145, as Chinese buyers moved in.

In China, donkeys are being stolen from farmers like Ma. Many of China’s 300 million farmers still rely on animal labor to plow fields, carry crops to market or grind maize, especially in poor or mountainous areas. As a result, donkeys are often considered like a member of the family. 

“The value of keeping a donkey far outweighs the temporary benefit of selling one for its skin,” said Mayers of Donkey Sanctuary.

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