In an animal rescue career spanning 27 years, it was the worst case South African SPCA inspector Reinet Meyer had ever encountered.
Corralled on a smallholding outside Bloemfontein, a city in South Africa’s arid interior, 70 donkeys nosed through trash piles for food or flopped in the dirt, too debilitated to stand. According to a farmhand guarding the property, they’d gone a week without sustenance—his boss, the man said, cared only about their skins and hadn’t even given them water. Ten of the animals had already died.
Behind the house, stretched flat on a low metal roof, donkey skins were drying in the sun. Two donkeys had been skinned that morning.
Donkey skins are the basis of a Chinese traditional remedy called ejiao, which is used for treating a range of blood conditions and, increasingly, as a general wellness product. During the past decade skins have surged in value—fetching up to $400 each—as China’s donkey population has dwindled. The result is an unprecedented global trade, much of it illicit.
Meyer hadn’t known about the donkey skin industry when she examined that herd in June 2016. She’d been tipped off by members of the Highveld Horse Care Unit, an equine welfare group.
The donkeys “had begun eating cardboard and bark from desperation,” Meyer says. “Many had deformed hoofs and were infected with herpes. Several mothers had aborted their pregnancies from stress. We found at least 19 fetuses, but counting was difficult—they were small and had started decomposing.”
The animals were euthanized the next day, after a vet declared them too weak to save. By then this animal cruelty case had morphed into a wildlife trafficking investigation, sparked by the discovery of gas burners and giant pots in a filthy outbuilding. The equipment, which Meyer had first guessed was for cooking donkey meat, was being used to process abalone, a marine shellfish smuggled by the ton from South Africa to China each year.
“We weren’t thinking about abalone poaching in Bloemfontein,” she says. “That stuff happens at the coast.”
But illicit supply chains cross borders and involve diverse products, driven by the steep margins of the black market. With demand for donkey skins rising sharply in China, wildlife traffickers have begun moving into the trade.
Chinese ejiao producers, concentrated in the remote eastern province of Shandong, consume more than four million donkey skins annually, extracting gelatin according to recipes that date back 2,500 years. Traditionally considered a blood tonic for treating ailments like anemia, ejiao was rebranded as a consumer item in the 1990s, ramping up prices and sales. Products derived from it today include face creams, liqueurs, and sweets.
During the same period, China’s donkey population shrank from 11 million to less than 6 million. Confronted with shortages, manufacturers have become increasingly dependent on skins from abroad.
The bulk of the imports come from developing countries where donkeys have historically been cheap, transforming the animals into coveted agricultural commodities. In Niger the average price of a donkey climbed from $34 to $145 between 2012 and 2016. In Kenya prices have more than doubled since February 2017.
This sudden inflation has priced out farmers who rely on donkeys as pack animals, and in some places for food, while the volume of skins sold—80,000 in just nine months in Niger last year, for instance—has raised fears of local donkey extinctions.
To prevent that, since 2016 six African governments have banned donkey skin exports, and six more have shuttered donkey slaughterhouses. But these measures have largely failed to stem the flow of skins and instead have driven large portions of the trade underground.
“All these countries that have taken a stand are still facing massive illegal or unregulated exports,” says Alex Mayers, of the Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K.-based welfare group that reported on the trade earlier this year. "Sourcing is happening in all sorts of creative ways.”
A NEW TARGET FOR WILDLIFE TRAFFICKERS
While destined for different markets, shipments of donkey skins present similar logistical challenges to other contraband, placing their handling and transport to Asia within the arc of wildlife traffickers and other groups accustomed to evading the law.
“We’ve been keeping a close watch on the wildlife crime element,” Mayers says. “There are many rumors, but proving the connection has been difficult.”
Cases like the Bloemfontein raid help connect the dots. Dried abalone, a status food that can sell for more than $90 per pound in China, forms the nucleus of a criminal economy worth millions each year in South Africa, with documented links to money laundering and the drug trade.
Police confiscated fewer than two dozen dried abalone from the Bloemfontein property, a tiny haul given that illicit exports from the country exceed 2,000 tons annually, equivalent to some 500,000 shellfish. But the find added credence to suspicions that donkey skins have been shifting onto the black market.
Further corroboration came in May 2017, when officials seized more than 800 donkey skins from a farm outside Johannesburg. Stashed among bales of donkey hides, they found seven tiger skins, considered a status symbol in China. “The skins were still bloody, like they’d been processed a few days earlier,” said Grace de Lange, an inspector with the SPCA. South Africa has no native tigers, though several hundred are kept in captivity, and trading their parts is weakly regulated.
At present it’s legal to export up to 7,300 donkey skins a year from South Africa. Meat safety regulations require donkeys to be slaughtered in approved equine abattoirs, and only one such slaughterhouse is now operating, with a license to process 20 donkeys a day. (Authorities recently shut down two other slaughterhouses for failing to comply with regulations.)
And yet a single export firm, Anatic Trading, investigated by police in Johannesburg this year, traded more than 15,000 donkey skins in an eight-month period from July 2016 to May 2017, exceeding the entire country’s annual legal limit at the time by some 5,000 skins.
“Aside from the animal cruelty issues, we’re concerned that these skins could be used to hide other goods,” says Ockie Fourie, a captain with the Stock Theft Unit of the South African Police Service.
This has already been documented in other countries: Police recently apprehended traffickers using donkey skins to smuggle cocaine in Bolivia and Colombia, while the Taliban is believed to have used donkey skins to conceal land mines in Afghanistan.
The lucrative returns in the ejiao industry, in addition to the utility of skins for disguising illicit shipments, appear to be attracting wildlife traffickers in Africa, especially as governments clamp down on the legal donkey trade.
According to one exporter in Kenya, interviewed via WhatsApp on condition of anonymity, Chinese buyers pay $48 per skin. That’s equivalent to about $130,000 for a standard 40-foot-long shipping container full of skins, excluding shipping costs..
“The Chinese partners who introduced me to donkey skins in 2015 told me they were selling like hot cakes,” said the exporter, a Congolese man who lived in China for six years. “Business is going very well.”
“To move any illegal product, you need strong social and trade networks,” says Annette Hübschle, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Safety Governance and Criminology. “It’s essential for smugglers to enter into trusting relationships with people further along the supply chain or disguise their products’ illegal status.”
Hübschle adds, “Due to our reliance on crime reports and limited seizure data, it’s difficult to assess the true level of convergence between wildlife trades. Often, fluid interfaces with legal markets are just as important.” By this she means that traffickers commonly move illicit products using front companies and other legal channels.
Several donkey skin companies in Africa have already been linked to donkey theft and illicit slaughtering. One firm based in Zimbabwe was recently fingered for buying thousands of skins in Botswana and shipping them to China via Mozambique. A recent investigation revealed that Kenyan slaughterhouses were sourcing donkeys from several neighboring countries, with “rife” cross-border smuggling.
Traffickers will be paying attention to these reports, which indicate untapped opportunities in the ejiao sector. “An abalone buyer I know started buying donkey skins last year,” says a former member of South Africa’s Chinese mafia, the underworld group that controls the illegal abalone trade. “He’s been involved in everything before, from prostitution to selling leopard skins and lion paws. But donkey skins are basically legal. Really, it’s easy money.”
This story was supported by a grant from the Africa-China Reporting Project, managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.