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Donkey exports to China threaten animal population in Egypt

The increasing demand in China for donkey hides from Egypt has taken its toll on the donkey population, posing several risks on the environment.

The lucrative trade in donkey hides on the back of a growing Chinese demand for donkey skin is posing a threat to the animal population in Egypt. The donkey population fell from 3.2 million in 2010 to around 1.6 million at present, an animal rights activist told Al-Monitor. Within 20 years, donkeys could become extinct in Egypt due to the hide trade.

Although the Egyptian authorities set in 2012 an export quota of 8,000 hides annually, a higher demand from Chinese pharmaceutical companies has created a black market for hides in Egypt over the past eight years.

However, the Ministry of Trade and Industry has increased the quota to 10,000 donkey skins in order to get more hard currency, Howida el-Hadary, the country manager of the Egyptian Society for the Protection and Welfare of Working Animal (ESPWWA), an affiliate of the UK-based charity The Donkey Sanctuary, told Al-Monitor.

“The population of donkeys has been falling due to illegal slaughter and export operations. Egyptian farmers rely on donkeys to till their farmland. The animal is an asset in agriculture in this country,” Hadary said.

The price of Egyptian donkeys has increased over the past two years due to smuggling. The illegal slaughtering of donkeys has been on the rise as the skin is worth more than the animal alive.

The Giza Zoo, which is the only zoo authorized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation to slaughter donkeys, auctions hides daily. Around 300 donkeys are slaughtered per month at the zoo.

“China has stopped the slaughter of donkeys to preserve its wildlife, and Chinese companies have been targeting African markets to get hide to produce donkey-hide gelatin — or Ejiao — which sells for more than $385 per kilogram [2.2 pounds],” Hadary noted.

According to The Donkey Sanctuary, Ejiao is used in food, beverages or in beauty products such as face creams. It is also used as a blood tonic by people with anemia, low blood cell count or those who face reproductive issues.

Hadary urged the Egyptian government to immediately ban hide exports to save donkeys from extinction and preserve the national wildlife. “A decline in the donkey population will increase the cost of farming; crops will sell for higher prices. Ultimately consumers will feel the pinch as vegetable and fruit prices rise,” Hadary added.

She also warned of the environmental impact as farmers will use instead tuk-tuks and tricycles. “Exhaust emissions from these fuel-powered vehicles endangers plants, soil and humans.”

Animal rights advocate Dina Zulfikar concurred with Hadary, calling on the authorities to “take action and save local donkeys from extinction. A decline in the donkey population has socio-economic consequences as well as environmental repercussions."

She told Al-Monitor, "Egyptian farmers rely on donkeys as a tool for cultivation. The loss of donkeys is greater than any temporary gain from hard currency inflows.”

Zulfikar added, “A she-ass gives birth to a foal annually. It is impossible to make up for the loss of donkeys. The authorities should at least temporarily ban exports of hide for a couple of years.”

She said feeding carnivores at private wildlife facilities and circuses poses a threat to the donkey population in Egypt. “For instance, a lion eats a quarter of a donkey — around 7 kilograms [roughly 15.5 pounds] of meat — per day. The lion eats meat six days a week. This means a lion eats around 42 kilograms [92.5 pounds] — or 1.5 donkeys — per week. In other words, two animals are slaughtered every week [to feed one lion],” she noted.

As for smuggling, Zulfikar warned of an exodus of donkey hide, calling for following in the footsteps of African countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger. “These countries put an end to this trade in a bid to preserve their wildlife,” she said.

Veterinarians and citizens are questioning what happens to the bodies of slaughtered donkeys, and farmers are urging the authorities to tighten the grip on the illegal slaughter of donkeys, saying that the donkey meat is sold to Egyptian consumers as beef.

The Egyptian authorities have reportedly seized the carcasses of donkeys across the country. In Shoubra El-Kheima, around 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) north of Cairo, the authorities found Dec. 12 in a refrigerator five slaughtered donkeys ready for sale.

“If the slaughtered animal — be it a donkey or a dog — is not sick, there will be no harm for humans. The meat serves as a source of protein for the human body,” Magdy Nazih, the head of the state-run Nutrition Education at the National Council for Nutrition, told Al Gomhuria daily newspaper Dec. 6.

Commenting on this, Ehab Ismail, a school teacher, told Al-Monitor that health officials “are probably trying to tell butchers who dishonestly sell donkey meat to make sure the animal has no disease.”

She added, “It is like saying make sure the donkey meat is clean.”

“Exports of donkey, cat and dog hide will not benefit Egypt economically, nor will it narrow the trade deficit between Egypt and Asian countries, especially China,” Samy Taha, former head of the Egyptian Veterinarians Syndicate, told Al Mal newspaper Nov. 24.

“[On the contrary], this will increase the possibility of selling donkey meat as beef. In 2016, the police seized a donkey farm that used to slaughter animals to export skins to China. The police did not find the bodies of the slaughtered donkeys,” Taha said.

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