How the global donkey skin trade risks spreading deadly diseases

China imports millions of donkey skins from Africa to make traditional medicine. But the skins can carry dangerous diseases—a recent sample from Kenya tested positive for MRSA.

Donkeys in the West tend to be associated with petting zoos and hobby farms, but around the world, these sturdy animals support the livelihoods of some 500 million people. In Africa especially, where donkeys are highly valued for transporting water and goods, some owners even think of them as “friends for life.”

About a decade ago, however, growing demand for donkey skins in China began to undercut this vital lifeline. The skins are used to make ejiao, a centuries-old medicinal product whose modern popularity grew after it was featured in a Chinese television drama. Made from gelatin extracted from donkey hides, ejiao is marketed today to women as a blood tonic to enhance fertility and remedy dizziness, insomnia, and other ailments. No credible scientific evidence supports ejiao's efficacy.

Donkeys’ biology makes it impossible to breed them en masse like cattle, and China’s newly invigorated ejiao industry consumes between 2.3 and 4.8 million hides each year. Some come from China’s own dwindling donkey supply, but most are sourced from Africa.

As slaughterhouses opened across Africa to meet the rising demand, traders bought some animals, but donkey theft also began to skyrocket, undermining communities and families that depend on them. In response, a number of countries—including Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria—banned the export of donkey skins. But the trade remains legal in South Africa, Mauritania, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Botswana. A seizure of nearly 3,000 donkey skins in Nigeria in June shows that illegal trade persists.

Now, new evidence indicates that in addition to imperiling livelihoods, the trade risks spreading zoonotic diseases from Africa to Asia. Genetic testing of skins sourced from a slaughterhouse in Kenya revealed positive samples for African horse sickness and MRSA, a group of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a report published today by the Donkey Sanctuary, a nonprofit headquartered in the U.K. that promotes donkey welfare.

“This is the first hard evidence that donkey skins can act as a vector for the movement of disease around the world,” says Simon Pope, the organization’s head of investigations. That finding isn’t necessarily surprising, he adds, but it was important to show that the skin trade poses more than just a hypothetical risk to humans and animals.

“The report draws attention to a form of international trade and movement that most people don’t know about,” says Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not involved in the research. “It’s becoming increasingly apparent that globalization is not only a problem for human diseases but also animal diseases.”

National and international regulations pertaining to trade in animals and their products exist in part to reduce the risk of disease transmission. But because of the lack of an established supply chain for donkeys, and the speed at which the industry developed, donkey skin commerce occurs with little regulation or oversight, says Eric Fèvre, a professor of veterinary infectious diseases at the International Livestock Research Institute and the University of Liverpool, whose lab in Nairobi carried out the genetic analyses for the report. “Knowing that these products are moving around the world in an unrestricted way is concerning,” he says.

In Africa, donkeys often travel hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses, crossing national borders. Regardless of whether the facilities are licensed or not, when the donkeys arrive, veterinary and biosecurity controls are usually insufficient to prevent sick or injured animals from being slaughtered, says Faith Burden, an infectious disease expert and executive director of equine operations at the Donkey Sanctuary. “The fact that the skin is the most valuable part of the carcass provides little if any incentive for a trader to reject diseased, injured, or infected donkeys, as this does not visually affect the product being traded.”

‘A very risky business’

In May 2020—just before Kenya shuttered its donkey slaughterhouses—the Donkey Sanctuary bought 108 skins from Star Brilliant Donkey Export Abattoir, in Naivasha, and commissioned Fèvre and his colleagues to undertake independent testing of the skins. They were to look for evidence of nine diseases endemic to the region, including anthrax, rabies, glanders, and equine influenza.

Three skins tested positive for African horse sickness, a disease that is especially deadly for horses. Another 88 skins tested positive for Staphylococcus aureus, a common disease-causing bacterium for humans. Half of those samples were confirmed to be MRSA, a group of genetically distinct Staph bacteria that have developed antibiotic resistance and can cause difficult-to-treat problem such as skin infections and pneumonia. Of the 44 confirmed MRSA samples, three were a highly virulent strain that produce a flesh-eating toxin called Panton-Valentine leucocidin.

Given the nature of the donkey trade, these findings “are not surprising at all,” says Ibrahim Ado Shehu, a veterinary epidemiologist in Nigeria and the West Africa regional representative for the Commonwealth Veterinary Association, who was not involved in the research. “The entire trade in donkeys is a very risky business.”

There’s a strong possibility, Shehu adds, that the trade could be implicated in other diseases not picked up in the small snapshot of samples analyzed for the new report. In a 2019 study of donkey trading in northwestern Nigeria, for example, Shehu identified bacteria that cause the diseases Brucellosis and Leptospirosis present in live donkeys awaiting slaughter for their skins.

Donkeys being taken to slaughterhouses could spread diseases to animals they encounter en route. In 2019, for example, an outbreak of equine influenza in Nigeria near the Niger border infected more than 3,000 horses and donkeys, killing 270 of the animals. Experts didn’t confirm the origin of the outbreak but believe it came from the illegal movement of donkeys sourced from a neighboring country, according to the World Organization for Animal Health.

Based on the Donkey Sanctuary’s new findings, Faith Burden calls for a halt to the legal skin trade and a crackdown on illegal trading until the industry can undergo “a complete overhaul of sourcing, transport, slaughter, processing, and shipping” to increase safety. Ideally, though, she and her colleagues would prefer the ejiao industry to stop sourcing donkey skins altogether and instead switch to lab-grown donkey-derived collagen. So far, however, industry officials have resisted such suggestions, Pope says.

Pope hopes to educate ejiao consumers about the disconnect between popular Chinese ads showing “donkeys gamboling around on green plateaus with crystal streams,” as he puts it, and the stark reality of Africa’s slaughterhouses.

“They’re buying ejiao as a health product, but the fact is, there are no controls over it at all,” he says. “I don’t believe consumers would buy it if they knew how it’s actually being produced.”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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