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ISS TODAY OP-ED

AU ban on cruel donkey skin trade a game-changer but enforcement challenges linger

AU ban on cruel donkey skin trade a game-changer but enforcement challenges linger
The ban on the donkey skin trade, adopted by the African Union, targets the rising global demand for donkey skins, primarily driven by China’s use of ejiao. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Donkeys are an important part of life across Africa — it’s now up to countries to ensure the ban is implemented.

In February this year, African leaders outlawed the donkey skin trade. The historic continent-wide ban, which prohibits killing these animals for their skin, marks a crucial step in safeguarding Africa’s 33 million donkeys from theft, trafficking and slaughter.

The ban was adopted at the African Union (AU) summit on 18 February. It also aims to ensure the welfare and sustenance of communities that depend on these animals.

The trade has become a global challenge. Demand is rising from China for the gelatin extracted from donkey skins, popularly known as ejiao — a traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ believed to cure a range of illnesses, with unverified efficacy. Around 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered annually worldwide to meet the escalating demand for ejiao, which is also used to make food and beauty products.

The cruel trade is detrimental to African communities, where donkeys are an important asset to about 158 million people. These placid creatures have long been valued as loyal companions and a critical means of transport. They are vital work animals for carrying goods, tilling the land and pulling water from wells. Declining numbers shift the burden of hard labour to women and children in rural communities.

Eliot Nsega from the AU Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources told the Enact organised crime project that donkeys endure relentless cruelty through the trade. They are violently captured, crammed into overcrowded, unsanitary transport over long distances, and left terrified and neglected before being slaughtered.

The projected demand for donkey skins is an estimated 6.8 million by 2027. Given this, “the AU’s ban on this brutal and unethical trade cannot come early enough,” says Janneke Merkx, Campaign Manager at The Donkey Sanctuary — an international organisation working to improve donkeys’ wellbeing.

Although the donkey trade is outlawed in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire, porous borders, uneven regional trade regulations, and limited enforcement capacities have led to a sharp decline in the donkey population.

Slaughter suspension enforcement

The AU’s moratorium follows years of sustained activism in Africa and Asia. During the 4th Africa Animal Welfare Conference in 2020, there was a call for African governments to institute continent-wide protection of donkeys.

In December 2022, participants at a pan-African conference organised by the AU Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources agreed on the need for immediate action. The conference’s Dar-Es-Salam Declaration on Donkey Preservation pushed for an AU resolution on a 15-year suspension of commercial donkey slaughter for skins and other derivatives. It also called for an African strategy against the exploitation of the animals. These actions culminated in the prohibition announced at this year’s AU summit.

Key points of the ban include a 15-year moratorium on the commercial slaughter of donkeys for their skin across all member states. A comprehensive Africa Donkey Strategy will also be developed to tackle the long-term challenges associated with the trade.

The decision is a positive step, but implementing it effectively won’t be easy. Countries must develop and enforce regulations and allocate resources for monitoring and enforcement, including tracking the movement of donkeys and identifying illicit trading routes. This may involve using satellite imagery and GPS tracking to gather real-time intelligence.

Nsega believes a successful ban does not require tracking every donkey. By focusing on high-risk areas and using a combination of strategies, enforcement can be targeted and cost-effective. Several international organisations have pledged to help AU member states ensure compliance with the trade ban.

Enforcement challenges

Dr Solomon Onyango, Country Director of The Donkey Sanctuary in Kenya, said the widespread nature of the trade, encompassing multiple countries and sophisticated criminal networks, is the primary obstacle for the AU and member states. Reports show that the illegal donkey skin trade converges with trafficking in protected wildlife and illicit drugs. Limited resources and capacity constraints present significant hurdles in detecting and prosecuting these crimes.

Confronting the cross-border nature of the trade requires cooperation between countries in sharing information, coordinating operations and tightening porous borders. Shipping, cargo and freight companies must be brought on board to curb the transportation of donkey skins. Criminal enterprises will likely adapt to the ban, so law enforcement must anticipate this.

While the prohibition focuses on controlling the supply side in Africa, tackling the demand for skins in destination countries is equally important, says Onyango. He believes the AU can play a vital role in fostering international dialogue and collaboration to address this aspect.

The ban is intended to provide time for the AU Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources, in partnership with animal welfare groups, to develop a comprehensive strategy for donkey breeding and productivity in Africa. Better animal welfare standards and responsible donkey ownership practices can also contribute to the animals’ wellbeing.

The AU’s ban represents a vital step towards dismantling a complex criminal enterprise. The next 15 years will test the ability of the AU and its member states to put their commitments into practice. DM

Dr Feyi Ogunade, West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator and Dr Ndubuisi Christian Ani, Senior Researcher and Project Coordinator, Enact, ISS.

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

First published by ISS Today.

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