At last some relief seemed to be coming the way of our decimated and beleaguered donkeys. I am heartened by the launch of a world report by Donkey Sanctuary, a UK based NGO that is involved in transforming the quality of life for donkeys world-wide. Actually it was not only the high quality report released by the Donkey Sanctuary that attracted my attention, but the pronouncements of high ranking officials at the event. I was taken aback by the evident coalescence of efforts at the highest rungs of government to deal with the matter. Many of us had raised the alarm at the way and manner the population of our donkeys were being ravaged. Since the mid-1980s the number of donkeys have been reducing at a scaring rate.
As I wrote in these pages two years ago, many of us who grew up in the far-north in the 1960s must have been familiar with the sight of numerous donkeys mostly as working animals not only on the farms in villages but also in the cities. I grew up in Maiduguri in that period and can recall plenty of donkeys in the streets particularly on Mondays when the city market had its day. All the roads leading to the Monday market were always clogged with heavily-laden donkeys from all directions. Probably more than half were coming from surrounding villages solely for market activities. This scenario was the same in most parts of the far-north, whether it was Kano, Sokoto or Katsina. The donkey was as ubiquitous in the country-side as in the cities.
But all these slowly changed in 1970s with the advent of more motor-cycles and motor-vehicles into the country as we became more prosperous with the newly found oil wealth. The consequences were that donkeys became increasingly redundant as beasts of burden and started disappearing from the scene. At the same time, unfortunately, a market sprang up for donkeys in other parts of the country where their meat was found to be highly valued as a delicacy. But the worse was to come for donkeys. In the 1990s Nigerian donkeys suddenly became export material to China. The donkey skins became highly sought after as an ingredient in the preparation of ejiao, an herbal concoction taken for skin health and reproductive prowess.
This Chinese medicine used to be only for the rich and powerful members of the society but in the last 30 years a sharp increase in disposable income in China has upped the demand for ejiao. The increased demand which cannot be met locally in China meant that they had to reach out to source donkeys from herds in other parts of the world. The statistics are glaring and grim enough. China had 11 million donkeys in 1992 which due to sharp rise in demand for ejiao had tumbled the number to 4.6m in 2017 and is now down to 2.6m according to the report just released by The Donkey Sanctuary. This meant that in the last many years the China ejiao industry had to seek for donkey skins from wherever at whatever price to feed the insatiable appetite of its burgeoning middle class.
Though one could hardly lay hands on any statistics affecting donkeys in Nigeria one could observe a strong correlation between the high demand for donkey skins in China, the curious one-way trade towards that country and the depletion of the donkey herd in this country as well as in many other African countries. The worrying part of the donkey skin trade is that there had been no concerted and coordinated effort to replenish and bolster the donkey herd in Nigeria. In the report released by the Donkey Sanctuary, the consequences of the gradual loss of donkeys was highlighted.
The report says: ‘For many of the world’s most vulnerable communities and women in particular donkeys are a pathway out of poverty and can be the difference between destitution and modest survival. They are used daily to collect water and provide transport for families to attend health clinics and children to attend school. The income generated by donkeys transporting goods to market enables owners to invest in saving schemes contributing to building stronger economies within tier communities. For these people the trade in donkey skins has had a catastrophic impact.’
The Donkey Sanctuary was founded by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen in 1969 to care for maltreated donkeys in the UK. It was based in Sidmouth, a small beautiful coastal town in Devon, South West England. The organisation grew not only in size but also in focus such that it is now operating in many countries of the world including, Ireland, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain, as well as Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Mexico. Dr Svedsen travelled all over the world espousing the cause of donkeys. She died in 2011, but the Donkey Sanctuary is now helping to carry her legacy forward. And obviously by the content of their 2019 report the Donkey Sanctuary has definitely gone beyond just looking after the welfare of donkeys but also to putt a stop to their decimation.
The report titled ‘under the skin’ was first released in 2017 in several languages of the world to draw attention to the emerging trade in donkey skins and its wide implications. The report released last week is an updated version. The ceremony, where the report was released in Nigeria was attended by the Chief Whip of the House of Representative, Mohammed Monguno, who represented the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila. Rep Monguno gave the cheering news that the House of Representative has already passed a bill prohibiting the indiscriminate killing of donkeys and the exportation of their body parts. The more uplifting part of his pronouncement is that a penalty of 10 years in jail has been provided in the bill to serve as deterrent.
At the event was also Mike Baker, the Chief Executive officer of the Donkey Sanctuary who alluded to fact that at the rate donkey skins are exported to China, 4.8m per annum, that will require half of the herds of donkeys in the world. At that rate, and without any preventive measures, donkeys would be on the sure path of becoming a thing of the past. The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mohammed Umar, who also graced the event, intimated that the National Council on Agriculture, the nation’s highest policy making body for agriculture, has already decreed the Nigerian donkey as an endangered species and trading in donkey parts has already been banned.
In my view, what is needed now to go forward would be for the House of Assemblies in the affected Northern States to domesticate the National Assembly bill to pass their own laws banning this unwholesome trade. There would probably be a need for a lot of sensitization at the local levels in which case local cells of the National Orientation Agency would be required to help. Will all this synergy, we hope to see in the nearest future a substantial increase in the donkeys’ herd.
Who said, donkeys are not winning?