For the next two days, Muntsu would traverse Hebron, a semi-rural outpost in the North West, by foot, frantically searching for his precious, hard-working animals.
Then, a friend called with devastating news. “He told me someone had found dead donkeys. I knew they were mine; there aren’t a lot of people who own donkeys here.”
Muntsu would make a grisly discovery on that hot day in November last year: his bloated animals had been bludgeoned with a hammer, their skins ripped off. “One of the mares was pregnant. I felt sick My donkeys mean everything to me.”
But beyond his horror, Muntsu was consumed by worry over his family’s future. He depends on the animals to heave the dilapidated cart he crams with sand, wood and stones, and sells. It’s a rudimentary trade that brings in about R2 500 a month, which feeds and clothes his four children.
But that amount, like his herd, is fast dwindling. Fewer donkeys mean more work for the animals that remain. “I used to be able to do six or seven loads a day – now I can only do two because the donkeys become too tired,” says the 45-year-old, his face heavy with worry.
Muntsu understands little about how his family’s fortune’s have been altered by the “relentless” global demand for donkey skins, to feed the rapacious appetite for its use in traditional medicine in China.
“The Chinese who play fafi here ask me if I can get them 40 donkeys Even if had that many, I wouldn’t sell them because what do I do then to survive?”
Muntsu watches his few remaining donkeys frolic in a small, dusty enclosure in his neat garden. The wire fence that protects them is tattered, like the clothes he is wearing.
“I can’t sleep. I’m so scared they will come for the rest.”
Once the preserve of ancient royalty, traditional Chinese medicine made from skins, called ejiao, has been refashioned as a luxurious 21st-century commodity, touted as a “product worth of emperors”.
Chinese firms use extracts of donkey gelatine contained in the hide, together with herbs to form a gelatinous bar, pill or tonic for its purported benefits that fight ageing, increase libido and tackle cancer.
“Numerous scientific studies have been published with scientists claiming significant health benefits. While some of the data may be questionable, others present plausible benefits in peer reviewed journals,” says Under the Skin: The Emerging Trade in Donkey Skins and Its Implications for Donkey Welfare and Livelihoods, a report by the Donkey Sanctuary, in the UK released earlier this year.
It details how the rapid expansion of China’s cash-rich middle class has jettisoned demand for exclusive traditional medicine products such as ejiao, rhino horn and ivory. “The apparent credibility of ejiao products seems to have created such a high level of demand for donkey skins that the global supply of donkeys is struggling to keep up, leading to high prices and widespread claims of fraud.”
The problem is that China’s donkey population has plummeted since 1990, from 11 million to around 6 million, largely because of intensive farming to cater for meat and skin products.
Consider that Dong’e Ejiao, a firm founded in 1952, has more than 10 000 employees, processing more than 1 million donkey skins a year. It’s listed on the stock exchange.
As a consequence, between four and 10 million donkeys “will need to die every year” to meet China’s demand for ejiao, “a demand that is unsustainable (there are only 44 million donkeys on earth), while causing mass-scale suffering to donkeys and risking the livelihoods of millions who depend on them”.
Already, at least 1.8 million donkey skins are being traded per year – thousands stacked and shipped, undetected, from South Africa to China.
In South Africa, a quick online search of trade websites leads potential buyers to suppliers listed in towns like Port Alfred and Brits, advertising mountainous heaps of “wet and salted donkey hides”.
One company, listed in Bramley in Joburg says it can provide 10 000 donkey skins a week with a “minimum order” for a 6m container.
Far-flung communities in developing countries carry the heaviest burden. “Rural villagers from Africa to South America have had their donkeys stolen, slaughtered and skinned overnight – impoverishing them in an instant and possibly changing their lives forever,” says the report.
Donkeys, everywhere, are no longer safe, says Jonno Sherwin, the founder of the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary, near Prince Albert. “I’ve been with people this week in Limpopo whose donkeys were stolen, or forcibly sold to middlemen involved in the skin trade.
“So many of these farmers literally break down in tears. Their livelihoods are shattered because it’s the donkeys which take their children to school, carry firewood and help them fetch water.
“Sometimes, donkey men rent out 10 or 15. Now, they’re literally stolen in the night, slaughtered in the bush and skinned.”
Like other donkey champions, Sherwin believes a silent donkey holocaust is unfolding.
“Rural areas that formerly relied on donkeys as an integral part of their cultural heritage are now seeing them decimated. If they sell them for R500, it’s short-term gain but long-term defeat. But for many, what’s the alternative? Their animals will be stolen anyway.”
Experts have called on countries to halt the exports until the impact of the trade can be studied and shown to be humane for donkeys and sustainable for the communities that need them.
But this week, North West government officials were wooing communities in Mafikeng and Ganyesa to join its provincial donkey production programme.
The global surge in donkey hide demand has given the beasts of burden a new role: as “an agricultural commodity”, they say.
With its Chinese partner, Juzi Technology, it wants to “exploit” the trade, by establishing donkey feedlots and an abattoir to commercial trade in meat and hides. This will help create jobs and alleviate poverty, the government says.
“We’re first looking at mobilising those willing to participate and then getting our colleagues in China to provide more information about how to keep donkeys, farm with them and trade,” says Patrick Leteane, the chief director for rural development.
“We want to start with 500 donkeys. We’re working with the police and animal welfare groups because their concerns are valid.
“There is a lot of interest in our communities. This is about enlightening them. In other countries, donkeys were killed to the point where they nearly became extinct. We don’t want that This is about sustainable use.”
But the project has its ardent critics, like Sherwin.
“Donkeys are gregarious animals, which build family bonds. They’re highly intelligent and sentient. The commercialisation of this trade is atrocious.
“Look at Burkino Faso and Niger, countries seemingly less sophisticated than ours. But yet they have had an outright ban on this donkey trade to protect rural farmers, who have suffered most, but ours is saying let’s rather run with the growth curve here.”
Like others, he argues no feasibility or sustainability studies have been conducted to assess the long-term viability of the commercial farming of a new species of domesticated livestock.
“Donkeys have never been farmed for any by-product in South Africa. It’s a massive step, taking a new domesticated species for commercial gain.
“We’d advocate the government impose an immediate ban on the export of donkey hides. Then, do your studies. The theft is illegal and the illegal slaughter is illegal, but the trade is permissible.”
“There’s no formal documentation to insist donkey hides must be declared. So, let’s say the price of a donkey is R300, when that skin reaches China, it’s worth R7000. If you have 5000 skins, you have R35million cargo. This is why our government is getting greedy.”
Ashley Ness, an inspector at the Highveld Horse Care Unit, points out that it would take more than 2 years for a donkey to “have a skin of a viable size”.
Donkeys take a year to give birth and foals needs to stay with their mothers for at least 6 months.
“The problem is our donkey population is so depleted already with all this illegal trade, that it’s actually frightening,” says Ness, who has monitored the vast local skin and meat trade for more than three years.
“These guys buy all the 200 donkeys in a remote village in Limpopo and slaughter them inhumanely.”
At auctions, the prices have soared, too. A few years ago, experts say, donkeys sold for R500 each – now it’s over R2 000.
Grace de Lange, who heads the farm animal unit at the NSPCA, says more needs to be done.
“There have been some convictions but we’re still not getting the big guys. What is the government doing?”
This week, the NPA stated that with the police, it is “committed to take drastic action to eradicate the unlawful stealing and slaughter of donkeys for their hides”.
Africa’s growth, propelled by the Chinese economy, means its huge donkey population is a key target, says the report.
“Chinese trade negotiations have provided legitimate and financially attractive routes for the trade of donkey products, often with significant incomes for governments, middlemen and the powerful elite.”
Horror trade – recent cases
July 2016 – The NSPCA puts down donkeys which were left to starve on a Chinese-owned farm in the Free State. The owner told authorities he was only “interested in their skins”.
January – More than a 100 donkeys are found bludgeoned to death with hammers on a Northern Cape farm.
January – After a tip-off the Highveld Horse Care Unit discovers 5 000 donkey skins in a shack in Benoni. This week, the Asset Forfeiture Unit revealed it had secured a preservation order for 2 921 donkey hides as well as the container they were kept in. The donkey hides have an estimated value of R4 381 500,
February – A Chinese businessman falsely declares 300 donkey skins at the OR Tambo International.
Who trades what?
Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya have government-condoned trade in donkey products l Burkina Faso, Niger and Pakistan have banned the export of donkey hides. In Burkina Faso, the cost of a hide soared from £60 to £108 between 2014 and last year l In Brazil donkeys are transported 1 000km for slaughter, suggesting a valuable trade, say donkey experts.
What does the law say?
It’s legal to export donkey hides from South Africa but only if the donkey was first sold by the legitimate owner, says the NPA. The only legal way to slaughter a donkey to obtain its skin for export is via a registered abattoir. There are only three legally registered equine abattoirs.