Illegal and devastating donkey skin trade revealed as an international biosecurity risk - Veterinary Practice
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Illegal and devastating donkey skin trade revealed as an international biosecurity risk

Findings from The Donkey Sanctuary reveal the serious international biosecurity risk posed by the unregulated and often illegal trade in donkey skins

Over 4.8 million donkeys are traded and slaughtered for their skins each year. The global trade in donkey skins results in suffering for donkeys and donkey-dependent communities on a devastating scale.

A new report from The Donkey Sanctuary reveals the donkey skin trade is also contributing significant and previously unrecognised risks to international biosecurity. 

The report “Biosecurity Risks and Implications for Human & Animal Health on a Global Scale” contains the findings of donkey skin testing conducted by The Donkey Sanctuary and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya (ILRI).

This testing identified multiple specimens contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus (S.aureus) and African horse sickness (AHS).

In the case of S.aureus contaminated skins, 44 of 108 tested were found to be carrying the drug-resistant MRSA variant and three of the positive samples were carrying the PVL-toxin.

This toxin is known to cause invasive necrotising diseases in humans.  

The demand for donkey skins is driven by the production of ejiao, a traditional Chinese remedy believed by some to have medicinal properties.

The huge numbers of donkeys involved, the indiscriminate and often unhygienic slaughter (including of those sick), the disparate way skins are shipped and transported, and the global nature of the trade, all add up to the high risk posed by skins contaminated with disease-causing agents. 

In addition to the immediate health risk to the people and equines exposed to these skins, the biosecurity implications for the destination countries are considerable.

Diseases that are endemic in source countries may not be present at all in transit or destination countries, leading to potential outbreaks of diseases in local, naïve equine populations. 

Worryingly, the donkey skin trade currently operates without adequate veterinary and biosecurity protocols.

The unregulated and clandestine nature of much of the trade also means that shipments are often impossible to track. Contaminated skins are therefore unable to be traced.  

Poor and unsanitary slaughtering conditions are a key contributor to the trade’s biosecurity hazards, particularly in cases where large groups of animals from different populations are brought together.

The majority of the trade relies on illegal backyard slaughter, which increases the risk of donkey skins being contaminated by disturbed soil or other infectious agents.

Where multiple species are slaughtered at the same location there is a further risk of cross contamination. 

However, even skins processed in licenced slaughterhouses constitute a biosecurity risk. All of the contaminated skin samples identified by The Donkey Sanctuary originated in a licensed slaughterhouse in Kenya.

In the same month as the samples were collected, consignments of skins were collected from this location and shipped to a destination in China.  

Marianne Steele, chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary said: “The global trade in donkey skins should be halted immediately. We now have evidence it is neither humane, sustainable nor safe and allowing it to continue, given the risks we have revealed, is unanswerable. 

“If nothing else, the recent lessons of Covid-19, and the current outbreak of avian flu, should make us sit up and take notice of the emerging threats that zoonotic diseases pose.” 

The findings of the report will be presented at the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources Pan-African Donkey Conference in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, taking place 1 to 2 December 2022.

Key disease risks and transmission vectors

S. aureus has the ability to survive long periods of transit on poorly preserved skins, meaning that it can infect humans and animals at the point of slaughter as well as during transit and on delivery in the destination country.

AHS can be carried by vector insects (Cullicoides midge), that may have the potential to survive long journeys in shipping containers and infect new equine hosts on arrival.  

The Donkey Sanctuary is calling on the governments of China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand to immediately stop the import of donkey skins, and on the national governments of exporting countries to take immediate steps to stop the trade in donkey skins.

Dr Faith Burden, executive director of equine operations at The Donkey Sanctuary, said: “The skins tested were from one slaughterhouse sourced on one day – I am sure that skins from other sources and in other countries and continents, if tested, could indicate the presence of other important pathogens such as glanders, equine influenza and African swine fever.”   

To find out more, read the full report online. 

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