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Millions of donkeys killed as donkey-skin trafficking moves online

Donkey skin trade morphs into online organised crime. SUPPLIED

Donkey skin trade morphs into online organised crime. SUPPLIED

Published May 14, 2022

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Cape Town - A new report from The Donkey Sanctuary has revealed the donkey skin trade has morphed into an online trafficking network that is transporting millions of donkeys to their deaths.

The report found thousands of live listings on unregulated e-commerce sites and social media platforms such as Facebook, where organised criminals exploit online channels to facilitate inhumane donkey-skin trade in order to meet the demand of the traditional Chinese remedy industry.

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More than 4.8 million donkeys were reported to be trafficked and slain each year for their skins, which are used in the creation of ejiao (donkey-hide gelatine). The report goes on to describe how donkeys suffer at every stage of the process, from birth to slaughter, because of the brutal and inhumane conditions that are common in this industry. Even the most vulnerable donkeys, such as pregnant mares, young foals and the sick and injured, are taken and traded.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s report referenced the findings of The Link Between Wildlife Trade and the Global Donkey Skin Product Network, which is a research paper by a multidisciplinary team from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

The research identified 382 traders who sold donkey skins on large B2B e-commerce websites. The researchers then analysed the full basket of goods that each trader offered for sale, creating a dataset of almost 15 000 product offerings, including wildlife products.

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Post-doctoral research fellow at Saïd Business School and co-author of the research paper, Dr Ewan Macdonald, said that the issue is important because customers shopping for donkey skins can easily stumble across other products for sale alongside these skins, potentially contributing to the ever-worsening biodiversity crisis.

“Our work brings together concerns about wildlife conservation, animal welfare and the well-being of some of the world’s poorest communities, all around the unexpected focal point of donkeys. This important research has, for the first time, shown a scientific link between the wider wildlife trade and donkey skin sales.

“We found almost 20% of donkey-skin traders operating online also sell some form of wildlife product, including species of conservation concern such as elephant ivory, pangolin scales and big cat parts. This matters because it reveals how customers shopping for donkey skins can easily stumble across other products for sale alongside these skins, potentially contributing to the ever-worsening biodiversity crisis. Unsustainable and under-regulated trade in wildlife is a major driver of wildlife declines, impacting as many as 20% of vertebrate species,” said Macdonald.

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Tactical response lead at The Donkey Sanctuary, Simon Pope, said that the number of the donkey-skin traders on e-commerce sites claim to be based in the Western Cape, and many of them claim to be able to source hundreds of donkey skins every month, far more than South Africa’s total annual donkey slaughter quota of 12 000 per annum.

“E-commerce has become such a huge part of the way society buys and sells goods. It means a trader in South Africa can set up a virtual marketplace for their goods and sell them anywhere in the world. But that presents challenges too – unless there are proper rules in place and proper enforcement, the free market becomes a free-for-all market. And our report has revealed just how much the global online marketplace has become tainted by criminality, with traders offering donkey skins alongside ivory, rhino horn, Class A drugs and even human body parts.

“Our research found over 80 different traders on different e-commerce sites selling wildlife items including ivory, pangolin scales and lion skins alongside donkey skins. Donkey skins were being offered by traders based in countries with bans on the sale and slaughter of donkeys, such as Kenya and Nigeria. If you add up all the donkeys that online traders in South Africa claim to be able to source, it far exceeds the number of donkeys in the national slaughter quota (12 000). When we contacted the e-commerce sites that act as platforms for these traders, asking them to take down the pages, only one responded.

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“E-commerce gives traders a degree of anonymity. They can operate almost invisibly and financial transactions, communications and locations are not transparent. However, traders leave clues behind, and investigators are getting much better at tracking and tracing their footprints. But it’s a time-consuming battle. The other problem is that what makes e-commerce sites popular and successful is the ease with which buyers and sellers can do business online, so there is little appetite or action by those who operate them to impose restrictions,” said Pope.

Speaking on the importance of donkeys, Pope added that the continuous demand from the ejiao industry has had a significant impact on donkey populations as many donkeys slaughtered for the ejiao trade are stolen from families who rely on them for their livelihoods, with devastating consequences for their economic prospects.

“Donkeys support the lives of more than 500 million people worldwide. For donkey owners, the real value of their working animal is the support it provides to them in sustaining their livelihoods, which is more valuable than a small handful of rand. The income they provide helps sustain communities, enables children to attend school and gives people independence, equality and empowerment. A stolen donkey can destroy all those things, and as demand for donkeys rises, so does their price, making buying a replacement unaffordable.

“E-commerce sites should prohibit the sale of donkey skins, which will simultaneously cut off an income stream for organised criminals that have been profiting from it and use it as a vehicle for the illegal wildlife trade. For the same reasons, governments, enforcement bodies and shipping must all play their part by either refusing to allow the slaughter of donkeys, cracking down on illegal donkey-skin traders or refusing to carry consignments of skins,” said Pope.

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