Vincent Gono, Features Editor
DONKEYS are crucial for the survival of so many African families, especially in rural communities where they are commonly used as animals of burden.
The recent opening of Chinese export markets that are fed by local firms where the demand for both donkey meat and hides is growing is likely to increase their market value not only in the country but in the region as well.
Although arguments and counter arguments have of late been flying thick and fast on the sustainability and suitability of the country allowing such commercial pacts it seems the country is all but ready to do business in donkeys with Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Deputy Minister Cde Paddy Zhanda demanding assurance that the meat would not find its place into the local market.
In Zimbabwe donkeys are known to be concentrated in the Southern arid regions of the country, owing to their drought resistant nature. They are not very expensive and are little known for anything else medicinal or otherwise other than drawing water carts, fetching firewood and many other domestic duties such as ploughing.
They are general less valuable in African societies. They are unlike cattle, sheep and goats that can be kept on a commercial basis for supplies of meat.
Donkeys are not eaten in many African societies and are never known to be a part of social status because of the less money they fetch on the market.
Other than Beitbridge where they are used for smuggling contrabands and sleek vehicles across the Limpopo, donkeys have not been known for any meaningful commercial venture. The illegal commercial venture has raised their value in that part of the country.
But with confirmed reports that the country has given the green light to the construction of an abattoir in Bulawayo with a capacity to slaughter and dress 70 donkeys a day, a legal commercial market for the animal of burden has been opened for the first time in the country.
The abattoir, a subsidiary of Battlefront Investments is said to be targeting the Asian market, particularly China where donkey products are on high demand.
“We have already started buying donkeys around the country as far as Gokwe, Plumtree, Gwanda and in between Gweru. Our target market is the Asian market and I have even employed some Asian people, Chinese people in particular,” said Mr Gareth Lumsden who is Battlefront Investment’s managing director.
He said all the legal processes of clearance and movement were going to be followed so that they do not buy stolen donkeys.
The setting of a slaughterhouse has however, raised a lot of dust within the rank and file of society with red flags of insensitivity, extinction of the animal and increased poverty in the country’s rural communities that rely on them as beasts of burden being raised.
Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services deputy director for health Dr Jairus Machakwa said there was no policy pertaining to the slaughtering of donkeys as they were not traditionally consumed in the country.
“A regulation for the slaughtering of donkeys is not there because we don’t traditionally consume them. It is however, not difficult to amend a regulation given that we intend to consume the meat. So it’s up to the members of the public to raise their concern,” he said.
Zimbabwe joins Kenya in allowing the setting up of a donkey abattoir while other African countries have banned the slaughter and export of donkeys and their products to China fearing extinction of the animal and further impoverishing their rural communities.
They also argue that allowing the commercial trade in donkeys will increase thievery in their communities as increased demand from Asian markets will outstrip the legal supply. Reports are that donkey skins are said to produce gelatine that is used in traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao. Over the last two years, ejiao has become popular among the Chinese who prize it as an anti-aging agent, an aphrodisiac, a cure for insomnia or poor circulation, among other health benefits.
According to reports, the donkey skin is boiled to produce gelatine which is used in the manufacture of ejiao which is often referred to as a blood tonic.
The medicine is good for building up the body and helps with what is known in Chinese medicine as “blood deficiency”, for conditions such as anaemia and heavy periods, as well as irritating dry coughs.
Interestingly, farmers in China have attempted to meet the increased demand for ejiao products by farming donkeys. This has however, largely been unsuccessful due to donkeys’ low fertility. Ejiao producers in China have even lobbied the government to subsidise donkey breeders to supply the ejiao market and reduce the shortfall in supply. It is also thought that artificial insemination and selective breeding is being used to increase donkeys’ reproduction in China where consumption of donkey meat is a popular tradition in some parts, where it is highly expensive.
This has called for a somewhat global increase in the demand for donkeys that also stretches into the country, stirring debate and controversy. The demand is expected to raise the price and the rate of slaughter of the animals, threatening the livelihoods of poor communities who rely on them as animals of domestic burden.
According to a joint statement issued in protest of the country’s first abattoir by Aware Trust Zimbabwe, Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe, Lupane Youth for Development Trust, the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Spana, the country has an estimated 150 000 donkeys.
“Zimbabwe has an estimated population of 150 000 donkeys, spread over the communal areas where they are an integral part of community life. The proposed abattoir in Matabeleland has an ability to process 70 animals per day. If supply meets demand, using 300 working days per year, the population of donkeys could be decreased by 21 000 donkeys per year. Donkeys are not suited as intensive production animals, since they have long gestation periods, high foal mortality, and slow foal development rates.
“Housed in unhabituated groups, donkeys suffer from a stress-induced condition called hyper-lipemia which can kill them. There is currently no ethically acceptable method of intensively farming donkeys, and the demand for the skin trade far exceeds the rate at which they can be produced,” reads part of the joint statement.
They also raised fears of trafficking of donkey skins which they said was often linked to wildlife criminal syndicates saying legitimising the trade could provide new linkages for wildlife poachers. Communities in the country have however, received the news with mixed feelings with some saying the opening of export markets was going to see donkeys getting more value and better treatment than they used to get traditionally while others maintained their reluctance to trade their work animals.
“There is little economic value in trading in the animal. There are short term benefits yes, especially that the buyers use cash which is scarce but there is no long term economic benefit. Our donkeys are poorly fed and look miserable so the prices are very low and at times they refuse to take them because they look miserable.
“Looking at it carefully one will notice that the donkey does work that is worth the $100 to $200 that the guys are offering unless if one is really desperate for cash,” said a Gwanda farmer Mr Melusi Ndlovu.
He said although some were excited at the prospect of trading their donkeys there was a real risk of falling into poverty as the donkeys are quite important in community life. Mr Ndlovu added that he would not want to get anywhere near where a donkey was being slaughtered.
“I will not want to watch a donkey being killed. What we know is that donkeys die on their own and we bury them. They are just like dogs. But the social intercourse with the outside world is giving us some unusual experiences like we once complained when our friends were skinning dogs in public. We are just not used to it and the complaints are justified,” he said.