Like them or not, value them or not, experts agree that the resilient donkey is the animal best suited to survive in the coming age when Botswana will be amongst countries hardest hit by climate change. The humble beast that once carried a Saviour, may soon become the hero itself, they say. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes
The nation was shocked almost exactly two years ago. A raid by members of the Botswana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BSPCA), veterinarians, agriculture ministry officials and other animal NGO representatives stumbled on a donkey genocide near Francistown.
Hundreds of donkeys were being kept in shocking conditions on a slaughter farm, starving, many already dead, bodies indiscriminately tossed away after being skinned and diseases running riot.
At least 1,000 donkeys were crammed in squalid conditions, cannibalising each other, while the Chinese operators picked them off one by one, often killing pregnant ones and their foals.
China, where the gel in donkey skin is believed to hold near-magical powers, has a demand of 4.4 million donkeys per annum but only produces 1.8 million.
The Oriental giant’s demand has created global networks of middlemen and producers, especially in Africa where poor farmers have seen the interest in the overlooked beast of burden as a Godsend.
Those who were in the team in June 2017 carry the nightmares to today.
“We were and we know what happened,” says John Moreki, Ministry of Agriculture deputy permanent secretary.
“They were grazing on each other’s fur, grazing the mophane tree bark so much that all the trees there were white.
“They were being killed indiscriminately and those that died on the way to the abattoir, the transporter would stop, skin them and throw away the meat.”
Phillipa Young, SPANA country director was there too.
“They had eaten all the bark from the trees, they were eating each other’s faeces, which was very little because they didn’t feed.
“They drank their urine.
“Everyday, at least 10 were dying of natural deaths.”
Government, which opened the gates for commercial abattoirs in 2016, acted and pulled the licences.
In the intervening years, Chinese kingpins had built up profitable donkey syndicates in Botswana involving middlemen and communal farmers, which, in the absence of legislation, had seen the indiscriminate wiping out of donkeys in some areas.
A Statistics Botswana report earlier this year put the official numbers of donkeys around the country at 140,000 for 2017, a 35-year low and the first reliable estimate of the impact of the unrestrained legal and illegal donkey skin trade.
Today, the sole donkey skin abattoir in the country operates in fits and starts as government frequently pulls their licence for violating certain conditions around environment, hygiene and the trade.
The donkey has traditionally been overlooked and undervalued. Stories are told of how a donkey could be purchased in exchange for an Okapi knife.
From time immemorial, donkeys were not reared but occurred naturally around rural homesteads where they occupied the bottom run in value and importance after cattle and small-stock.
They were and continue to frequently be the target of abuse and neglect. In fact, the culprit in the 2017 Francistown massacre walked away with a P50 fine for animal cruelty. Nearly 500 donkeys died in that incident alone.
Climate change, however, could be the donkey’s saving grace. Experts say of all the candidates in the kraal, the donkey is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of suitability for the expected vagaries of climate change.
Authoritative local, regional and global studies indicate that Botswana lies in a region that will be worst affected by the intensifying effects of climate change, with average temperatures expected to climb sharply, while seasonal rainfall continues to drop.
The signs are already here. The country has suffered extreme droughts in all but one of the past five season, costing billions in agricultural inputs for farmers and emergency relief. This season alone, after yet another disaster, 38,300 citizens are expected to be food insecure and require government intervention.
Where cattle and small stock will gasp out of the equation in terms of value, experts say the humble but drought-resistant donkey will stay in the game, providing draught power and meat. More value is available through donkey milk, either its direct consumption, or its sale for income.
“Donkeys can survive on dried grass, cardboard and a bit of water,” explains Young.
“That humble donkey is the most robust, sturdy and able animal to withstand everything we ask of it, including drought.
“In fact, the environment is not the donkey’s biggest threat; human beings are.”
SPANA, an international working animal charity, estimates that Botswana has at least 180,000 working animals of which donkeys number 140,000.
“Botswana was built on the backs of donkeys and people still rely on them.
“Today, donkeys are supporting communities across the country, many of whom don’t have running water or electricity.
“For such people, donkeys are collecting firewood and water.
“The donkey’s future is uncertain, however and Botswana is reached a tipping point in the next two to three years, from where we can never recover.”
Climate change means the efforts to shift the value people can see in donkeys from beyond just skin, need to be redoubled. Thanks to the get-rich-quick skin syndicates that built up previous years, many farmers if they don’t view them as useless, only see donkeys as skins to sell.
Part of that involves changing the existing laws or tightening them to specifically ensure that donkeys receive the same value treatment as cattle, from farm to abattoir. Experts say at present, the industry is generally governed by the Cruelty to Animals Act, which dates back to 1936 and was responsible for the P50 fine the Francistown operator received.
“There’s a Control of Livestock Industry Act which dates back to 1991 and was reviewed in 1977, but it only defines livestock as cattle, goats and sheep,” explains Okavango Research Institute researcher, Nlingisisi Babayani.
“There is also a 2007 Livestock and Meat Industries Act governing everything around the slaughter of domestic livestock, from the control of abattoirs to grading, inspections and others.
“However, the regulations for donkeys under this act have not been developed, partly because by 2007 donkeys did not matter.
“All the other animals covered by the Act received their regulations.
“Authorities are groping in the dark with respect to regulations of donkeys and their produce.”
However, under the Act, according to Babayani, the minister has the right to establish regulations that could provide penalties of up to P6,000 for non-compliance and provide sweeping protections from “farm to fork”.
“Everything from construction and hygiene of abattoirs, treatment and handling, methods of slaughter, inspection of meat, markings for carcasses, quality standards for grades of meat, export taxes and others.
“The regulations would be similar to the ones for cattle.
“You put this into regulations so that then you bind people into a certain culture or behaviour.
“Right now, everyone is doing as they see fit, according to their own culture.”
Experts believe the issue of value around donkeys will get authorities to move faster in this direction. Where cattle are the belle of the ball for now, climate change means donkeys will become increasingly important and such regulatory protections and sustainable extraction of value will become critical.
Some, however, have long appreciated the value of the donkey.
“In our village, this animal is extremely important,” says Nonofo Galebotse, deputy chief of Moeti kgotla in Maun.
“The meat is eaten. The milk is drank. We transport everything with it. It tills our fields.
“This animal is so important that we should be using it for bogadi.
“If you gave me donkeys for bogadi, I would be very happy because you will also have given an animal that will not be killed by drought.
“The Chinese are buying them for P500, but this animal should be P5,000 and above.” There is a ray of hope for the donkey after all.