Why the African Union Stopped the Donkey Hide Trade with China

In February 2024, African heads of state agreed to ban the trade of donkey skin, at the 37th African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The killing of donkeys for their hides is now illegal across the continent. Africa has around 33 million donkeys, about two-thirds of the world’s estimated 53 million.

The unprecedented decision ended a hitherto fast-evolving China-Africa business. It also is the result of an unusual agreement between the 55 African Union member countries on a matter that affects rural development, women’s rights, and poverty alleviation. Perhaps most unusually, the ban arose from an implicit unified pushback against a profitable business with China, Africa’s largest trade partner and one of its major investors and financiers.

On a research visit in 2017 to Ethiopia—the country home to the world’s most numerous donkey population at more than 11 million—I was shocked to hear voice after voice in small towns and rural areas express dismay at the slaughter of donkeys for their skins.

The donkey trade story begins around 5,000 BC in East Africa when equus asinus, the donkey, was first domesticated. The donkey would go on to help build the pyramids in Egypt, and to carry Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, millions of low-income children around the developing world to school, and the sick to hospitals amid war and drought. The donkey’s domestication transformed not only trade and access to water, but also alleviated humans, women especially, from immense physical drudgery.

In China, other uses for the donkey evolved too. For example, as a substitute for horses in Tang dynasty polo matches for some female riders. During the Tang dynasty, donkey hides became a key ingredient of a Chinese medicinal treatment known as ejiao (阿胶), made by extracting collagen from donkey hides and mixing it with herbs, mineral-rich water, and other ingredients to create gelatin pastes, tablets, and pulp. Today, ejiao is sold as both a stand-alone medicine and infused into liquids and gels and added to snacks such as bars or sesame balls.

Used as an elixir of feminine vitality, as well as to treat ailments ranging from infertility to anemia to insomnia, ejiao was produced in small quantities until the late 20th century, in the winter months and under intensive and arduous labor conditions. Modernization and elevated prosperity meant that in recent decades companies began to produce a wider range of ejiao-containing concoctions in greater quantities. But it was a product placement in the 2011 television series Empresses in the Palace that really brought ejiao into widespread consumption in China, particularly among women.

As a result, the price of donkey hides, and donkeys, have increased substantially over the last decade or so, though identification of reliable price data can be a challenge. Beijing-based business and finance consulting firm Newsijie reported that by 2023 the ejiao industry’s market size had exceeded 58 billion renminbi (U.S.$8 billion).

But the industry faces a supply problem: Donkeys are troublesome to breed. Unlike chickens or pigs, which start breeding much earlier and more frequently, and give birth to multiple offspring at a time, a jenny (a female donkey) typically starts breeding only around the age of two or three, is pregnant for about 12 months, and then nurtures typically just one foal for four to six months.

According to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s donkey population has declined dramatically since 1990, specifically from more than 8 million in 2004 to under 2 million in 2021. By 2014, when China’s donkey stock fell to just above 4 million, the ejiao industry began to experience hide shortages. Officials in Liaochang prefecture, the heart of Shandong province’s ejiao industry, responded by issuing the “Opinions on the Development of Donkey Farming in Liaocheng City (2015-2019),” outlining plans to develop the city’s donkey stock capacity and related financial support measures. In 2018, Shandong provincial authorities also began formulating measures to increase the donkey population, to little avail.

By 2021, the growth of the industry meant that it needed some 5 million hides per year, but domestic sources could provide only an estimated third to half of that requirement. The result is the relatively recent and sudden emergence of a global trade in donkey skins, primarily from Africa but also Mongolia, Pakistan, Brazil, and other countries. Roughly half of China’s imported donkey hides come from Africa, at 12 percent of the cost of Chinese hides.

It is hard to piece together the full picture of the legal (and illegal) donkey hide trade over the last decade. Since donkeys are mostly found in remote areas among the poorest, data on donkeys is limited. Data on the donkey trade is also incomplete. While the United Nations’ Standard International Trade Classification (SITC) data series lists categories related to the donkey hide trade, many of the related data lines do not actually contain any data.

Sina Finance reports, however, that 1,339,730 “unsplit whole equid skins” (raw or pre-processed skins) were imported by China in 2023, of which 784,221, or around 59 percent, were imported from African Union member states. There is also, however, an illicit donkey skin trade of unknown dimensions, linked to which are cases of donkey theft and illegal slaughter.

Both the legal and illegal trades have multidimensional and mostly adverse effects in the source countries. For example, the loss of a donkey often means that female household members are forced to do more household and physical farming labor. This includes carrying water and goods on their backs over what are often long distances. That in turn leaves less time for work outside the home, reducing total household income and female contribution to it. Not only does this reduce gender equality, but it also leaves children having to walk to school, and girls sometimes being forced to drop out of school altogether to support their mothers. Not having a donkey can lead to diminished access to clean water, as well as create added costs for transportation. Households that continue to own donkeys now must contend with the added expense of new security measures against theft. Ejiao-linked demand has contributed to increased trade, theft, and inflated prices, meaning that donkeys can be hard to replace.

For donkeys, the skins trade is often inhumane. Not only are donkeys typically killed without appropriate standards or systems, but they may also be transported across borders over long distances in cramped vehicles. It is animal welfare activists, primarily in Africa and the United Kingdom, who have led the charge to try to bring about a ban on donkey slaughter for their skins.

These impacts have made the donkey skin trade unpopular in some communities in rural Africa as well as among some government officials. But countries that sought to regulate or ban the trade and contain its adverse impact on the rural poor mostly failed because of implementation challenges at home and the cross-border donkey smuggling supplying burgeoning illicit trade.

A conference in December 2022 paved the way for continent-wide action. The inaugural Pan-African Donkey Conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, convened to discuss the theme of “Donkeys in Africa Now and in the Future.” Organized by the African Union’s Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), the government of Tanzania, and donkey charities within and outside of Africa, conference participants called for a continent-wide 15-year ban on the donkey skin trade. It is this call that the African Union historically opted to heed in February.

The AU’s historic February 2024 decision was widely reported by Chinese media and discussed online. That coverage generally had a pragmatic focus on the fact that Africa needs its own donkeys, and that losing them leads to substantive socioeconomic costs. On Chinese social media platforms, some users expressed disappointment that China’s trade had ever reached a point that necessitated such an AU undertaking, although others expressed shock and called the AU’s ban “Western.”

First Finance Media suggests that the future of China’s donkey supply lies mainly in Pakistan. Other reporters have questioned the fundamental efficacy of ejiao. Meanwhile, in April Shandong province called for public comment on a host of suggested measures for advancing the quality and direction of the ejiao industry.

Neither the Ejiao Industry Association nor its dominant member, Dong’e Ejiao (a multibillion dollar business and subsidiary of CR Pharmaceutical Group, a division of China Resources, a large state-controlled conglomerate), has formally responded to the ban. Since Dong’e Ejiao is the only ejiao producer with its own supply of donkeys, the ban may consolidate the industry around this nearly monopolistic supplier even further.

The triennial Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit, which Beijing will host later this year, is an opportunity for Beijing to take steps to support the ban. Chinese support in enforcing the ban will help to ensure that African donkeys can first serve the needs of rural African communities. Moreover, that support can simply be embedded into China’s established push to foster not only China-Africa people-to-people ties, but also to promote elevated agricultural productivity in, and agricultural trade with, Africa. Indeed, fostering a sustainable donkey supply for Africa and eventually the possibility of a well-regulated trade would appear to be an obvious area for deepening China-Africa collaboration.

Significantly, the African Union’s ban was not about China or China-Africa ties, but about Africa and the role of donkeys on the continent. At the Pan-African Donkey Conference of 2022, representing the South African Institute of International Affairs, I was the only speaker to directly raise China’s links to the donkey skin trade, and to discuss the ejiao industry and China-Africa relations at the event, at all. Other speakers took great effort to ensure their campaign was not mistaken as a campaign against China, the continent’s largest trade partner and a leading financier, and instead about preserving African resources and rural communities. This feat of a pro-donkey rather than anti-China narrative may have helped win the African Union’s support, but also still awaits durable and lasting implementation.

What is also not yet clear is whether the coming together of the 55 African Union member countries to save the donkey, in the implicit face of Africa’s largest trade partner and major investor and financier, will come to mark a turning point in Africa’s agency in its relations with China and with the world. Perhaps this year’s FOCAC will give some indication. In the meantime, recent moves by Kenya to better regulate its livestock industry and South Africa’s decision this month to end the breeding of lions in captivity for trophy hunting or export of body parts for medicine suggest further animal protection measures are already taking place. Those who benefit from donkeys, as well as activists in Africa and beyond, are focused on supporting implementation of the ban and continuing to celebrate.