Costs outweigh profits when farming donkeys for skins

Mamat feeds donkeys at his cooperative. Photo by Aerdake, People’s Daily
Mamat feeds donkeys at his cooperative. Photo by Aerdake, People’s Daily

A new report from The Donkey Sanctuary, citing research from the University of Reading, reveals farming donkeys for their hides is not a viable business model. Worse still, intensive farming puts the health and wellbeing of donkeys and humans at significant risk by increasing the risk of infectious disease spread in both species.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in demand for the collagen from donkey skins, used to make the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ejiao. With China unable to meet demand due to its own diminished donkey population and failed attempts to farm them profitably at sufficient scale, the ejiao industry has been sourcing donkeys from across the world, threatening their existence in some African nations.

Ian Cawsey, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at The Donkey Sanctuary said: “This report serves as a dire warning to anyone who thinks donkey farming is a get-rich-quick solution. It is anything but – inputs and costs are high, and outputs and returns are slow and low.

“Anyone considering investing in donkey farming should ask why it would work any better outside China than inside it. Despite all the technology, resources and billions of dollars of investment that has been poured into vast donkey farms there, the industry is still unable to meet the demand for skins within China.”

For thousands of years, donkeys have played a crucial role in sustaining communities globally, most often as working animals with low monetary value. Some countries outside China are now considering farming donkeys with the idea to profit from the ejiao industry’s supply crisis. However, farmers in Africa risk locking themselves into a false economy, with the costs of breeding and raising donkeys for skins far exceeding any potential profit. And these countries themselves risk destroying their population of working equids, damaging their reputation on the global stage, and contributing to the spread of infectious disease.

Modelling of the economic viability of donkey farming, published by the University of Reading in the UK, reveals viable production and profit levels are not realistic without unacceptable compromise to donkey welfare needs. Even under unrealistically favourable conditions, a farmed herd of 200,000 female donkeys would take at least 15 years or more to supply 1.2 million skins – just a fraction of the amount currently trafficked each year to meet demand for ejiao.

The report also highlights a business plan for a Tanzanian slaughterhouse which calculated it would require $3.7 million USD and four years to increase the number of viable donkeys from 296 to 683. This increase would only satisfy seven days of abattoir demand and revenue would not come close to covering the costs. The Tanzanian government has since placed a ban on the slaughter and export of donkeys, recognising the fast decline in donkey population in the country.

Despite this evidence, advocates of donkey farming continue to make hugely inflated and dishonest claims about the possible returns on investment and production numbers of donkeys. One argument from Nigerian group The Donkey Skin Processors Marketers and Export Association, suggests the Nigerian donkey market value chain could generate about $2 billion annually. Claims such as these are based on the very false assumption that large numbers of breeding animals can be obtained, and production begins immediately. The Donkey Sanctuary has seen several instances where supposed donkey farms are simply transit stations for the collection and holding of donkeys sourced from communities that are then awaiting slaughter.

Otieno Mtula, Regional Campaigns and Advocacy manager for Africa, said: “Much like the recent ban in Tanzania, decisive action must be taken across the continent to protect the future of donkeys, and to educate anyone interested in donkey farming about the clear risks.”

Donkey breeding and production on a small scale is not new, but donkeys as a species are not at all suited to the intensive farming model.

Dr Joe Collins, Chief Veterinary Adviser at The Donkey Sanctuary said: “The unique needs of donkeys simply cannot be addressed in intensive farming systems. Donkeys have evolved to live in small groups and typically become bonded to specific other donkeys as companions. Donkeys are also highly prone to stress, which can manifest as a dangerous metabolic condition known as hyperlipaemia[2] .Stress can also negatively affect fertility and reproduction rates, which in turn affects production and profitability.

“Without vaccination against equine diseases such as equine influenza and herpes virus, a high risk of infectious disease exists in an intensive farm environment. As a result, the health and welfare of farmed donkeys will deteriorate to unacceptably low levels. Plus, it is often difficult in comparison to horses to identify when a donkey is suffering from an equine infectious disease, meaning by the time it is recognised it could have spread between groups to the point where it is out of control. Losses could be huge.”

The Donkey Sanctuary is warning potential investors against farming donkeys for their skin, not only because of the welfare of the animals involved, but also the potential for substantial financial losses.

It is time the ejiao industry explored cellular agriculture, which can produce collagen identical to the natural donkey-derived substance, as a sustainable and potentially lucrative alternative – one without negative unintended consequences for donkeys and the people who depend upon them.

In the wake of this report, The Donkey Sanctuary has renewed calls on governments and policy makers to immediately halt the global donkey skin trade.

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