A new farm animal?

We’re all used to the concept of cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs being farmed in their billions – but donkeys?

True, there has always been small scale, local consumption in some countries but The Donkey Sanctuary has uncovered a worrying new trend of donkey milk, meat and hides being harvested on a much larger scale.  

In Italy alone now almost 6,000 donkeys are now farmed for their milk and this is dwarfed by the numbers in China.  There has also been evidence of donkey meat finding its way into the food chain, disguised as beef, even in countries like the UK. 

The big change though has come in China.  Donkey gelatin has been used in traditional medicine for over 2,000 years.  Where once it was the preserve of Emperors, now demand is rocketing as it finds a mass market.  The demand for 10 million skins a year and rising set against a recorded supply of two million skins is generating ripples across the world as a result of the deficit.

The price of a working donkey has rocketed, sometimes by a factor of 10.  For example, in Egypt, the price of a donkey has gone up from £17 (LE200) to £170 (LE2000) in just a few years.  This makes them all but unaffordable to millions of the world’s poorest people who rely on them for their livelihoods.  Huge shortfalls in the numbers of donkeys has already led Burkino Faso and Niger to ban the export of donkey products.  

Some of the world’s poorest communities will have their transport and agriculture disrupted by this trade.  Without a donkey, it is the local people, particularly women and children who will end up forced to carry everything from water to goods to markets that could be many miles away.

But if it is hard for many people, the potential suffering for donkeys is difficult to imagine.  The ‘solution’ to the ‘supply problem’ being discussed regularly is to farm the animals.  Small scale farming with an emphasis on welfare can be humane but the sky rocketing demand for donkeys means we are likely to be looking at farming on a large scale.  Mass feed lots – factory farming for a whole new species - is an alarming prospect.  Specialist slaughterhouses are already being planned and built in countries like Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya.  It will not take long before local ‘supply’ is exhausted and they would have to start farming donkeys to meet the demand. 

At a time when the suffering of animals farmed on a mass scale has never been clearer and when the unsustainability of industrialised livestock farming is helping to wreck both climate and communities, we shouldn’t be expanding the circle of species selected to suffer.

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