Cellular agriculture – growing animal products in tissue culture – could help reverse a disastrous decline in the population of donkeys across the globe, a meeting on equid welfare was told.
Ian Cawsey, director of advocacy for the Donkey Sanctuary, told the National Equine Forum in London on 5 March 2020 that the use of donkey skins (Figures 1 and 2) to make the Chinese traditional medicine product ejiao was driving an illegal international trade in the animals and their body parts.
Ejiao is increasingly popular with China’s growing middle class as a health tonic or face cream and around 4.8 million skins a year are needed to meet the current demand. Home production can only supply about a third of the skins needed to produce the collagen-based product and so around 3 million skins are imported (Figure 3). This not only causes suffering for the animals concerned but also threatens the livelihood of some of the poorest communities in Africa and Asian countries that are heavily reliant on donkeys as pack animals, he said.
There is evidence that the illegal trade in both live animals and donkey skins is a significant biosecurity hazard. “There were outbreaks of equine influenza and other diseases in West Africa in 2019 that caused the deaths of an estimated 60,000 animals. Although this cannot be blamed exclusively on the donkey skin trade it is significant that the incidents occurred along the established trade routes,” Ian said.
Donkeys are a source of low cost, carbon-free transport for poor rural communities. In the absence of these animals, it is usually women and children that have to carry out the work, denying them opportunities to gain an education or earn a wage. Hence 19 countries across Africa and Asia have banned the slaughter of donkeys to try to maintain the numbers of this economically vital domestic species.
But the substantial profits that can be made from the skins means that the illegal trade is thriving and the conditions of donkeys during transport and slaughter (Figures 4 and 5) “have led to the worst welfare abuses that experienced staff working for the international welfare organisations have ever seen”, said Ian.
The Donkey Sanctuary is working with an alliance of other welfare charities to try to curb the illegal trade. Together, they are also providing funding for wardens to guard the donkeys at markets where the animals may be stolen while their owners are trying to sell their produce. These wardens are also being given training so that they can provide basic welfare and health advice to the owners, he said.
The group, which includes other UK charities such as the Brooke Hospital, SPANA and World Horse Welfare, is also lobbying the governments of China and the exporting countries to introduce better controls on the slaughter and movement of animals. “Only last week, the government of Kenya, which has been a major hub for the export of donkeys brought in from neighbouring states, announced that it would close the slaughterhouses supplying the trade in donkey skins. This was very good news but I fear that the people that are making such big profits from this business will find another source before too long,” he said.
The main focus of the welfare organisations is to try to reduce demand for imported skins in China. He said the Chinese government has been encouraging efforts to develop large-scale farming of donkeys within that country although it is estimated that it will take 20 years to build up the population to a sustainable level.
The emergence of diseases such as coronavirus has again focused the attention of the Chinese authorities on the risks associated with uncontrolled movements of animals. They have listened sympathetically to the welfare organisations’ call to suspend imports of donkeys and donkey products and are considering their response. The charities have also been discussing with the ejiao manufacturers the possibility of using alternative sources of collagen including donkey skin cells grown in tissue culture.
“We are not going to eliminate the demand for this product altogether and so we must work with them to reduce the impact. The companies have their own concerns about biosecurity and in creating a sustainable and consistent quality material for their industry – it may be that cellular agriculture is the answer,” Ian said.
Asked by an audience member what UK animal-lovers can do to help their efforts to eventually eliminate this “bloody and awful trade”, Ian Cawsey said the most important thing they could do would be to spread the word. It was frustrating for welfare organisations that the international trade in donkey skins has been going on for many years and yet most people were unaware that it exists. “The main thing that people in this audience can do when they leave this forum is to talk about what they have heard today and make sure that everybody knows about this issue.”