Free-roaming donkeys and their role in ecosystem health


The emergence of free-roaming donkey populations globally has brought novel challenges for conservationists, land managers and animal welfarists alike. Donkeys (Equus asinus) are classified as ‘alien’ in sixteen countries where they are listed as being introduced by humans (IUCN-GISD 2020), and considered ‘invasive’ in countries where they are non-native and have potential to act as a threat to native biodiversity and natural ecosystems (McNeely et al. 2001). As non-native species, free-roaming donkeys are often framed as illegitimate and ‘out of place’. In places where they are deemed too numerous, donkeys are assigned labels such as ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’, further entrenching ideas of illegitimacy (Bough 2006, 2016; Celermajer and Wallach 2019). However, there has been limited research on the interface between science, policy and management for free-roaming donkeys, including the kinds of logics and rationales that are used to either support or denounce their presence in different geographical and ecological contexts.

Core methodology: 
We used both qualitative and quantitative techniques to review over 100 scientific articles, which were identified using a snowball technique and key search terms; manually checking each article to ensure its relevance. For the quantitative analysis, articles were classified under the following categories: Publication date; Country of study; Discipline of article; Type of article (field-based; literature-based or management-based); Biome (of study area); Focus of impact (whether impacts where measured/discussed with specific reference to donkeys, or for wider groups of species); Evidencing impact (whether an article measured environmental impact, discussed environmental impact or referred to presence only). All articles were qualitatively reviewed using NVivo (v.12.0) for categorical and thematic analysis as well as critical discourse analysis. This involved the identification of different issues that regularly appeared in the literature, ascribing fine-grade codes or ‘topic codes’. We then worked from topics to themes, systematically coding these themes while reflecting on meanings, positionality and underlying agendas. We also assessed the overall framing of the article, examining the extent to which donkeys were framed in positive, negative or neutral terms.
The project includes an extensive review of the scientific literature pertaining to the place and role of free-roaming donkeys. We critically examined the logics and rationales that are used to either support or denounce donkey presence in particular landscapes and discuss their ‘ecological belonging’ in relation to such contexts. Our findings indicate that free-roaming donkeys are largely understudied, misunderstood and clouded by dichotomous points of view, different conservation agendas and the presence of other ‘higher value’ species in the same habitats. We identify a critical need for more in-depth, site-specific studies on free-roaming donkeys, using tools and techniques from across the social and natural sciences. Such efforts would offer a richer, more holistic and comprehensive picture of free-roaming donkeys, considering both human and animal perspectives and the wider environment. This has important implications for generating long-term sustainable management solutions for free-roaming donkeys.