An Update on the Global Donkey Skin Trade 

The current status of the donkey skin trade and efforts to eliminate it since the National Equine Forum's last update in 2020.
Donkey involved in the global skin trade
The donkeys involved in the global skin trade come mostly from low-income communities where these animals are primary sources of income. | Getty Images

At the 32nd National Equine Forum in March 2024, Ian Cawsey, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the UK-based Donkey Sanctuary, presented an update on the status of protection efforts for donkeys being culled for their skins. 

The donkey skin trade has been stimulated by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) demands for a popular “blood tonic” made from donkey skin: Ejiao, also called “colla corii asini” or donkey-hide glue. It is produced from collagen extracted from donkey skin; the gelatin produced by the boiling process gets mixed with herbs and other ingredients to make bars, pills, and liquids people can consume or use as beauty products. Purported uses for ejiao include “enriching blood, curing anemia, stopping bleeding, improving the immune system, preventing cancer, and treating insomnia and dizziness.”  

This $7.8 billion-dollar-a-year industry (in 2021 dollars) necessitates 4.8 million donkey skins per year (as estimated in 2020) from donkeys amassed from across the world. China cannot supply the number of donkeys needed to perpetuate its country’s demand for TCM, so slaughtered donkeys get exported from developing countries, especially Africa with two-thirds of the world’s donkey population and some from Central and South America and other parts of Asia. In Botswana, donkey numbers declined by 70% between 2011 and 2021; India experienced a similar rate of decline during this period.  

The Devastating Consequences of the Skin Trade 

The donkeys come mostly from low-income communities where these animals are primary sources of income. Donkeys are especially important to low-income communities for their role delivering sustainable development—they work in all weather and provide carbon-neutral transport in remote, rural settings.  

An Ethiopian proverb states, “If you don’t have a donkey, you are the donkey.” In most communities, women and children look after the donkeys. Without donkeys, women and girls in those countries must do the “donkey work.” This adversely impacts their economic independence and “denies them an opportunity to continue with education.” Here’s a telling quote from a developing African country: “If there are no donkeys, there is no community.”  

Through theft and trade, the donkeys are transported or marched to slaughterhouses with no food, water, or rest. They are held for days without shelter before being slaughtered. In addition, lack of treatment of the donkey skins might contribute to spread of infectious disease, including zoonoses, during transport. African horse sickness, equine influenza, glanders, strangles, and anthrax are potential infectious diseases carried through the transport of dead donkey skin. Once the skin is flayed off, donkey carcasses are often discarded in piles with runoff from carcass sites potentially polluting water, land, and air. 

Protective Efforts and Positive Changes 

Cawsey said a link has been identified between the donkey skin trade and illegal wildlife contraband. The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) investigated donkey skin transport and found the skins are used to hide illegal wildlife hides and other “products.” Called parallel trafficking of contraband, this method hides pangolin scales, rhinoceros bone, and ivory, for example. The ARAF-Donkey Defend Initiative and other agencies oversee cross-border trafficking due to recent recognition of this issue. 

The donkey skin trade is a pressing problem on many levels, including welfare, socioeconomic, and biosecurity. Through collaboration with multiple agencies—Brooke, Spana, World Horse Welfare, and The Donkey Sanctuary—positive changes have occurred over the past four years. Starting in February 2024, the African Union (AU) banned donkey slaughter and trade in an effort to suppress the brutal practice, said Cawsey. While Africa’s 54 countries have not come to a complete consensus, each one now has the opportunity to stop the donkey skin trade by imposing a moratorium on slaughter. 

Cawsey reported that in addition to the many collaborative efforts to eliminate the donkey skin trade, other initiatives show promise. Cellular agriculture potentially allows for manufacture of donkey collagen in the lab through DNA sequencing. The public has accepted scientists’ recent ability to grow Cordyceps fungi—which is also important in TCM—in the lab, giving hope that those invested in TCM will similarly embrace lab-grown ejiao and, thereby, spare the donkeys. 

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