Donkey population drops to 35-year low

Donkey numbers are at a record low, In 2008, then Chinese envoy, Ding Xiaowen told Mmegi donkeys were a way for Batswana to 'get rich'
Donkey numbers are at a record low, In 2008, then Chinese envoy, Ding Xiaowen told Mmegi donkeys were a way for Batswana to 'get rich'

The numbers of donkeys around the country dropped to 140,000 in 2017, a three-decade low and the first official estimate of the impact of rampant unregulated slaughter and trade. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports.

Overlooked, often abused and under-appreciated, the lowly donkey faces an existential struggle following years of brutal slaughter fuelled by a blossoming market in China.

From being viewed simply as draught power with no direct financial value, ballooning demand for donkey skin, hooves and meat particularly in China, has seen the emergence of an entire illicit ecosystem locally, with growers, rich middlemen and border-crossing traders.

In China, which has a strong alternative or traditional medicine industry, the donkey products fetch a high price and are used for everything from sexual stimulants to anti-ageing medicines.

Meanwhile in Botswana, tales have been told of desperate communal farmers selling their donkeys off for as little as P150 to middlemen who mark the prices up to as much as P1, 000 to the traders, who have access to the distribution channels to the far East.

While it has long been suspected that the rampant trade was eating into the donkey population, an authoritative report from Statistics Botswana (SB) this week has given the first concrete evidence of the devastation many suspect the trade was wrecking on historical donkey numbers.

According to the data agency’s agricultural survey, donkey numbers were on the rise between 1979 and 2013, starting the period off at 127,000 and ending it at 310,000. During that period, donkeys enjoyed their heydays between 2001 and 2004 when their populations rose above 400,000, peaking at an all time high of 493,000 in 2003.

However, the numbers also show that from 2013 they began dropping to 227,000 in 2014, 178,000 in 2015 and eventually 140,000 in 2017, the lowest population since 1984.

Botswana began issuing donkey meat and hide export licences in September 2016 in response to requests by Chinese investors and local farmers who wished to tap into a population which by that time was said to number 300,000. SB figures suggest that the actual numbers were about 100,000 off that figure.

The opening up of the licences was a God-send to traders, as African countries had, in succession, closed doors on the industry citing the devastation of their donkey populations. Across Africa, countries such as Niger, Senegal, Mali, Gambia banned donkey exports, leaving Botswana as one of the few with a large population and open licence for traders.

In June 2017, government banned the export of all donkey products after a horror discovery near Francistown where severely abused donkeys were found being “reared” on a plot, dying of starvation, bodies piled on each other and the surviving animals cannibalising each other.

Public outrage was sparked after it was revealed that 128 donkeys had been slaughtered in a single week in just two villages, with farmers reporting that Chinese traders had harvested hides and other body parts, leaving carcasses behind.

The government banned the trade four months later and shut the abattoir in Francistown that slaughtered donkeys.

However, the agricultural survey supports the suspicion amongst animal rights activists that underground activities have continued after that period.

The ban appears to have driven the ecosystem underground and raised the prices of the beasts of burden.

According to the government’s statistics agency researchers, donkey sale prices rose from a national average of P387 in 2013, to P548 in 2015 and P618 by December 2017.

In that last year, donkeys fetched an average of P875 in Ngamiland West, the highest in the country.

The Francistown area has been amongst the hardest hit by the illicit trade, with the donkey population there dropping from 38,300 in 2013 to 24,821 in 2015 and 20,119 in 2017.

Two years ago, councillors in the northern city heard that stray donkeys had become rare in their area, with the donkeys apparently being rounded up for slaughter. For a period in that year, donkeys, which once were a common sight in the city, disappeared, even from the council’s stray animals impound.

In Chobe district, the donkey population went from 624 in 2013, to 91 in 2017.

SB researchers believe several factors are driving the falling population of donkeys. “The fall in the population of donkeys might be due the exportation of their skins, increase in local consumption and the general decline in their use as a source of draught power especially for ploughing and planting, with tractors being used instead,” the experts said in a previous agricultural survey.

For animal rights activists, the donkey trade has exposed the callous nature of human greed, with a once disregarded animal, receiving the wrong type of attention without recourse to law.

Donkeys, they say, are commonly chained up, flogged brutally, starved and generally abused because unlike cattle, their owners do not see their inherent value beyond draught power.

The value of cattle rises with care and feeding, while – as seen in Francistown – the value the illicit trade seeks from donkeys has little correlation with their welfare.

A Chinese trader arrested in connection with the Francistown horror farm was given a single charge of cruelty to animals, which carried a fine of P50.

“We are still seeing trade in donkeys, especially around the Francistown area,” says Happiness Dube, deputy manager of the Botswana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BSPCA Gaborone).

“Our concern is the welfare of these animals and it does get compromised.

“We are yet to conduct another inspection of these sites as we are in talks with the Agriculture Ministry on the issue of revising the Animal Welfare Act.”

Senior Ministry officials were unavailable for comment by press time yesterday.

A revision of the Act, activists hope, will lead to stiffer punishments for those found abusing donkeys and could, down the line help the numbers recover. In the meantime, however, no relief beckons for the beasts of burden.

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