In the Global Skin Trade, Chinese Medicine is Fueling Demand for Donkey
Ejiao, also known as donkey-hide gelatin, is, as the name suggests, gelatin obtained from the skin of the donkey by soaking and stewing. It is an ingredient frequently used in traditional Chinese medicine and an entire industry has emerged to meet its demand.
The emergence of the global trade in donkey hide is attributed to the rise of China’s affluent middle class and increased perception of the medicine’s efficacy. Ejiao can sell for up to $375 per kilo.
“It’s what we refer to as a blood tonic. It’s good for building up the body and helps with what is known in Chinese medicine as ‘blood deficiency’, for conditions such as anaemia and heavy periods, as well as irritating dry coughs,” says Emma Farrant, president of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine. “It usually comes in blocks of dried pieces which are melted down into a concoction of herbal mixture to drink.”
The rural backwater of Dong’e, in Shandong province where more than a 100 factories produce ejiao, is the epicenter of a multibillion-dollar industry that is having a devastating effect on donkey numbers worldwide. Four million young animals – 2.2 million of them outside China – are being killed every year for their skins, which are boiled, liquefied and turned into health snacks, powders and face creams that the Chinese believe are the key to long life and lasting beauty. This industry alone has halved China’s donkey population and is threatening to expand to other continents’ populations.
Even then, demand is outstripping supply. Around 1.8 million hides are traded per year while global demand is estimated between 4 to 10 million skins. This has raised the price of donkeys in some countries, making them unaffordable for many people who use them to take goods to market, cultivate land, and fetch water.
There are already legal, government-sanctioned slaughterhouses in Kenya and Ethiopia, home to the largest donkey population in Africa. In other places like Egypt, South Africa, and Tanzania, donkeys are frequently stolen for illegal or “bush” slaughter.
“Communities the world over risk being impoverished or losing their independence,” said Mike Baker, chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary. “Donkey populations cannot continue to be decimated and communities must not be deprived of their only means of survival.”
Ejiao was once made exclusively for Chinese royalty. An account by early 18th-century French Jesuits recalls how there was a well in Dong’e used only to draw water to make ejiao for the imperial court. Mao Zedong and other members of the Communist Party elite used it, the chairman sending letters to colleagues praising its health benefits and giving ejiao as gifts.
However, since 2010, online and television marketing has increased the medicine’s appeal to a younger, more consumer-driven audience.The town’s factories have expanded the market massively by mixing ejiao – traditionally sold in solid slabs, for up to 7,000 yuan a piece – into health snacks or tablets and selling it in powdered form to drink with tea. A daily dose in the form of a snack or powder capsule costs about 400 yuan a month. They are also being produced in the form of beauty masks and face creams.
On the outskirts of Dong’e, Shandong Dong-e E-Jiao (DEEJ), China’s biggest ejiao factory can hold up to 10,000 donkeys bred specifically to be killed and skinned. It aso employs 10,000 of the 200,000 population of Dong’e and processes a million donkey hides a year. The complex also has a museum celebrating ejiao’s history. In one display room, a giant map pinpoints the countries DEEJ claims to source donkey skins from which include Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and four European countries: Spain, Italy, France and Germany. Australia will also be added to the list as DEEJ has negotiated a deal with authorities in the Northern Territory under which the area’s feral donkeys would be rounded up and their hides exported to China.
Nearby is another major factory – Beneton Ejiao, which processes 3,000 tons of hides per year. Already, t is doubling in size and capacity to try to keep up with demand. The company sold 1.2 billion yuan of ejiao products last year and is preparing to go public next year. However, Zhang admits, it is a struggle to maintain supplies and he foresees a day when his supply line will run dry.
“There are very few donkeys left in China so we are now getting our hides from countries like Afghanistan,” he says. “In the 1990s, there were 11 million donkeys in the country but now there are only 6 million, so we have to import donkey skins from places like Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.”
“I fear that, in the future, China’s ejiao industry will have the embarrassment of having no rice to cook. With pigs you can breed them and kill them in a year. With donkeys you must wait two to three years,” he says. “I have a strong feeling of crisis. Australia may be our last resort for donkey hides before long.”
DEEJ vice-president Wu Huaifeng also shares Zhang’s concern. “Our main problem is raw materials. There is a mismatch between the donkey skin supply and strong market demand for ejiao.” He also stated that his company wanted to “explore and control the global sources”.
However, Farrant stated that there are alternatives that can be used to replace ejiao:
“Many things associated with Chinese medicine usually have alternatives. With donkey hide, for example, you could use other animal forms of gelatine such as from beef, pork or chicken. For vegetarians, seaweed could be used.”
Only five countries so far have banned exports of donkey hide – Pakistan, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – but the Donkey Sanctuary warns that more countries need to ban the slaughter and export of donkeys for their skins.
“We are urging a halt to this trade until it can be shown to be both humane and sustainable for the donkeys and the communities that depend on them,” says Baker. “Consumers need to know the impact ejiao has on people’s lives across the world. This is not just an animal welfare issue but a humanitarian crisis and we need to take action now to stop it.”