Gelatin produced from donkey hide is a key ingredient of one of China’s favorite traditional remedies, known as ejiao, which is used to treat a range of ailments from colds to insomnia.
With just under 5 million skins needed ever year for ejiao production, the industry would need more than half the world’s current donkeys over the next five years to meet demand, according to a report from The Donkey Sanctuary.
In the past six years the ejiao industry has grown rapidly due to increased demand and price rises, with annual production increasing from 3,200 tonnes in 2013 to 5,600 tonnes in 2016, according to The Donkey Sanctuary.
To meet demand, Chinese businesses need about 4.8 million donkey hides per year.
Donkey populations in China have collapsed 76% since 1992, so the industry has turned to foreign suppliers, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America, says the organization.
Brazil has seen a 28% reduction in donkey populations since 2007, compared to 37% in Botswana and 53% in Kyrgyzstan.
In response The Donkey Sanctuary is pressing for “an urgent halt to the largely unregulated global trade in donkey skins before donkeys are virtually wiped out in some areas.”
The impact of the collapse of the donkey population will be felt most keenly by those 500 million people who rely on the animals in some of the world’s poorest communities, according to the organization.
There are also reportedly terrible animal welfare abuses in the supply chain, the report states, as donkeys are often stolen then transported to slaughterhouses in terrible conditions.
An estimated 20% of the animals die in transit.
Given the scale of demand, even pregnant mares and young foals, as well as sick and injured donkeys, are being traded.
The report reveals that the trade also presents biosecurity risks, with unhygienic practices encouraging the spread of diseases such as anthrax, tetanus and equine flu.
“This is suffering on an enormous and unacceptable scale,” said Mike Baker, chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary.
“This suffering is not just confined to donkeys as it also threatens the livelihood of millions of people.”
The Donkey Sanctuary is pressing for ejiao manufacturers to switch to artificially-grown donkey-derived collagen, rather than hides.
China should also suspend the import of donkeys, according to the organization.
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM), which regulates traditional Chinese herbal medicine in the UK, said it condemns the use of substances that endanger animals or subject them to cruel practices.
The organization recognizes the outcry over unethical sourcing of donkey hides, said RCHM council member Martin John in a statement.
“Whilst such gelatin products have their medicinal uses, their use in modern Chinese medicine practice is unnecessary and unethical using current sourcing,” said John.
Gelatin from beef, pork or chicken can be used as an alternative, added John, while vegetarians can use certain kinds of seaweeds and herbs.
China’s rapid industrialization and move away from traditional agriculture saw the country’s donkey population plummet in recent decades.
Traders started to look elsewhere for hides, buying up such large numbers of animals that governments such as Niger and Burkina Faso banned the sale of donkeys to China due to environmental and economic problems.
So far 18 countries have taken action to protect their donkey populations, according to The Donkey Sanctuary.