Increased levels of personal wealth in China is fuelling demand for luxury products including ejiao, a product made using donkey skin. A traditional medicine, ejiao’s popularity is largely due to its reported ‘anti-aging’ properties. Demand for donkey skins to produce ejiao is conservatively estimated at 4 million per year. This represents a significant proportion of the global donkey population of 44 million. China’s own donkey population has nearly halved in the last 20 years and entrepreneurs are now looking worldwide to satisfy a growing demand.
Despite their essential role in livelihoods and community resilience donkeys are largely invisible in livestock policies, livelihoods and humanitarian projects. It is therefore unsurprising that the emerging trade in skins is also invisible. Donkeys are frequently stolen from owners across Africa and illegally slaughtered in the bush; only the skins are removed and carcasses left to rot. In other areas, donkeys are bought at less than current market value and are transported in inhumane conditions to recently built ‘legal’ slaughterhouses. The invisibility of the legal and illegal markets is compounded by illegitimate export practices and criminal gangs. Due to the lucrative market for skins intensive farms are present in China and are likely to expand to other countries, such rearing creates significant welfare concerns for a species poorly adapted to intensive practices. Even if awareness of this trade improves, in the short term donkey owners are facing donkey prices that have increased up to tenfold within a few years and they are without the means to replace animals they depend on.
This emerging trade is, essentially, a fur trade with animal skins being sourced for human beauty. However while furs are visible, the role of donkey skins in ejiao products is invisible to the end user, mirroring the invisibility of the trade and donkeys themselves.