Chinese drug demand behind sharp fall in donkey population?

A study commissioned by Brooke India (BI) has revealed that donkey hide is used for manufacturing Ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine used in treating multiple illnesses. Also, the Chinese believe the drug can prolong life, increase sex drive, and maintain beauty. A report by Raj Machhan

 A traditional Chinese medicine is proving to be the nemesis of donkey population in India. As per the latest Livestock Census conducted in 2019, India has 1.2 lakh donkeys, a whopping 61.23 per cent fall over 2012 when 3.2 lakh asses roamed the countryside.

The startling revelation has been made in an investigative study commissioned by Brooke India (BI), the Indian arm of the UK-based international equine charity. “The population scenario has worsened further since 2019. Owing to the illegal Donkey Hide Trade (DHT), the beast of burden could soon be on the verge of extinction in the country,” says Sharat K Verma, a senior journalist who conducted the investigative undercover study for BI over two months in 2021. Titled ‘The Hidden Hide’, the study has now been submitted to the Commissioner, Animal Husbandry, Government of India.

Donkey hide is used for manufacturing Ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine used alone or as a mixture with other ingredients. The gelatinous substance, also known as ass-hide glue, is manufactured China’s several coastal provinces including Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong. It is prepared by soaking and stewing donkey skin. The Chinese have a strong belief in the therapeutic properties of Ejiao. It is used to treat multiple illnesses including bleeding, dizziness, insomnia, and dry cough. The Chinese believe that Ejiao can prolong life, increase sex drive, and maintain beauty. “The massive demand for the medicine has nearly decimated the donkey population in China, which has led to the manufacturers looking at other countries including India,” says Sharat.

According to a BBC report, the global demand for Ejiao increased sharply in mid-2010s, which resulted in an increase in donkey prices, especially in third world countries. This led to a ban on export of donkeys by African nations, including Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, to China. Donkey Sanctuary, a British charitable organization devoted to welfare of donkeys, says that the huge global demand for Ejiao has led to sharp decline in donkey population the world over. It estimates that over 4.8 million donkeys are required each year to meet the growing demand for the medicine.

The BI investigative study involved field visits to Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat – states which recorded the highest decline in the donkey population. India shares a 1770 kilometer highly porous border with Nepal. The country allegedly acts as a transit point, from where donkey hides or live animals are further smuggled to China.

As per the study, donkey owners and traders were generally reluctant to talk about the Chinese connection. But a few did choose to speak. At a donkey fair in Jejuri, Maharashtra, trader Ram Babu Jadhav said that a Chinese man had approached him through a local Maharashtrian for buying at least 200 donkeys every month. “He asked me to give only the skin of the donkey. He was not concerned with the meat and was ready to pay a high price. However, I refused,” the report quotes Jadhav. Sharat has shared a video, recorded surreptitiously, where Jadhav is seen talking about the Chinese offer at length.

The study says that despite a government ban, slaughtering of donkeys for meat is rampant in Andhra Pradesh. In Vijaywada’s Tadepalli locality, sellers were found openly selling donkey meat. “Hundreds of donkeys are slaughtered every week on Sundays and Thursdays during the dark of the night,” says Sharat. Local activists revealed that people consumed donkey meat because it is believed to have medicinal value and increased virility. Donkey hides are sold separately for Rs 500 per skin.

The study says that one of the biggest donkey fairs held at Luniawas, near Jaipur in Rajasthan, has now lost relevance due to a sharp decline in the number of burros. Rajasthan has registered a 71.31 per cent fall in donkey population between 2012 and 2019. The investigator has highlighted evidence of DHT in Jaipur while talking to Vimal Dhanka, a labourer from Purani Basti, who owns eight donkeys. Dhanka said that from 200, donkey population in the area had been reduced to just over a dozen animals . The report quotes him as saying, “My contact in Gujarat told me that in future do not sell your donkeys to buyers from Gujarat as these animals are either getting butchered and their skin is sent to China or they are transported alive to China”.

Sharat’s visit to Nepal was most revealing. At Chhaprahiya Pokhra, he talked to a potter about purchase of donkeys. “The potter agreed to arrange as many donkeys as I wanted. He said that in the past too he had arranged for donkeys from India for someone probably from China.”

Smugglers allegedly use the porous Indo-Nepal border, places like Raxaul in Bihar and Rupaidiha near Bahraich in UP to transport hides or live animals. Donkey population in Bihar and UP has declined by 47.31 per cent and 71.72 per cent respectively. In Rupaidiha, local journalists claimed that donkey hides are taken to Nepal on two-wheelers or even on bicycles. “Investigations revealed that Armed Forces of Nepal had recently caught some mules being taken illegally from India to Nepal. Such instances keep happening. Smugglers often keep the mules and donkeys in open grounds for some time and then sneak over to Nepal along with these animals,” says Sharat.

Overall, the donkey population in India has witnessed a sharp decline on account of its reduced utility, switch over to other businesses by communities rearing donkeys, automation, and theft. The BI report adds the DHT dimension to the declining numbers. The investigator claims to have collected substantial anecdotal evidence on video to prove this.

“Surprisingly, in India, donkey hides are available for sale on IndiaMart. The minimum orders are pegged at 3500-4500 pieces. IndiaMart is also openly advertising the sale of frozen donkey meat. The minimum quantity to place an order is 50 kg, priced at Rs 500 per kg,” says Sharat. Slaughter of donkeys is prohibited under Slaughter House Rules, 2001.


‘We will take corrective measures’

Talking to Tehelka over phone, Praveen Mallik, Commissioner, Animal Husbandry in the GoI Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, said, “I have seen the report, and referred it to the concerned officials for further investigation.” The department will refer the matter to security forces responsible for border control if the information about smuggling is found correct.  “If the drastic reduction in donkey population is related to breeding or our intervention is required we will take it up actively under the government program,” he said. He added that the donkey population had already been decreasing due to various factors, but the BI study has depicted a drastic fall that goes beyond the trend. “Our department is presently in the process of understanding the basis of it and we will definitely take corrective action wherever required,” he said.