Naivasha, Kenya
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Kenyan families left destitute by the theft and slaughter of thousands of donkeys by criminal networks supplying skins for Chinese medicine are hitting back - with vigilante gangs.

Over the past three years Kenya has become the epicentre of a fast-growing industry in Africa to supply donkey skins to China which are boiled to produce a gelatin called ejiao used in traditional medicine believed to stop ageing and boost libido.

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John Nduhiu Kuiyaki, chairman of the Kamere Donkey Owners Association in Kamere informal settlement in Naivasha, Kenya, in a photo taken on 22nd August 22. Nita Bhalla/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Kenya has opened four licensed donkey abattoirs since 2016 - more than any other country on the continent - which slaughter around 1,000 donkeys a day, according to government data.

But growing demand from China has led to a black market with gangs hired by skin-smuggling networks to steal donkeys, according to local officials, inciting anger in communities who depend on the animals for livelihoods, farming, or transport.

"Supported by charities, donkey owners have formed groups to protect their animals. They do night patrols and form search parties when donkeys go missing. They even organised protests about the thefts."

- Phillip Ariri, area chief of Naivasha

"After the slaughterhouse opened here in April, 2016, the number of cases shot up," said Phillip Ariri, area chief of Naivasha, 100 kilometres north of the capital, Nairobi.

"Supported by charities, donkey owners have formed groups to protect their animals. They do night patrols and form search parties when donkeys go missing. They even organised protests about the thefts," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Donkey slaughter has surged in Africa as demand for ejiao has jumped ten-fold to about 6,000 tonnes a year in China whose donkey population - once the world's largest - has plummeted to 4.5 million from 11 million in 1990, United Nations data shows.

Once a luxury for the elite, ejiao - that comes as a tablet to dissolve in water or in anti-ageing cream - is now widely used by China's increasingly wealthy middle class and diaspora. Prices have surged to over $US780 a kilogram from around $US30 in 2000, according Chinese state-run media reports.

While much of the trade in donkey skins is legal, communities in countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Egypt, South Africa and Burkina Faso have also seen thousands of their animals stolen to service the lucrative Chinese market.

More than 300,000 donkeys - 15 per cent of Kenya's donkey population - have been slaughtered for skin and meat export in less than three years, according to a June survey by the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization.

More than 4,000 donkeys were reported stolen over the same period from April, 2016, to December, 2018, it added.

The report warned that donkeys were being slaughtered at a rate five times higher than their population was growing which could wipe out Kenya's donkey population by as early as 2023.

"I am concerned. The numbers are declining and it's not sustainable," Obadiah Njagi, Kenya's chief veterinary officer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We know people are suffering because their donkeys were stolen and there are less animals available as they are being bought by the slaughterhouses. We are trying to control this."

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A man walks with his donkey in Naivasha, Kenya, on 22nd Aug. PICTURE: Nita Bhalla/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Animal welfare groups and donkey owners are calling on Kenya to ban the trade in donkey skins and close down slaughterhouses, in line with similar action in more than a dozen other African nations, from Nigeria and Senegal to Burkina Faso and Mali.

"Donkeys support the lives of millions of people - from farming their land to carrying their children to school - but now they are under threat," said Fred Ochieng, head of Brooke East Africa, a Nairobi-based animal welfare charity.

"Kenya is one of the few countries in the continent which is slaughtering donkeys in such high numbers. It is central to ending the donkey slaughter trade in Africa and ensuring that people have access to a decent living."

More than 600 million people, largely in the developing world, depend on donkeys, mules and horses as their primary means of transport and on farms, according to Brook East Africa.

"Donkeys support the lives of millions of people - from farming their land to carrying their children to school - but now they are under threat."

- Fred Ochieng, head of Brooke East Africa.

In Kenya the situation started to change in 2016 when the country's first donkey slaughterhouse, the Star Brilliant Donkey Export Abattoir - a Kenyan firm backed by Chinese investors - opened in Naivasha.

Within months its suppliers started buying hordes of donkeys across the area, leading to shortages and driving up prices.

Then donkeys began to disappear as criminal gangs moved in.

Five donkey owners in Naivasha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation how they woke up to find their donkeys missing.

Charles Maina, 40, said there was little left of his six donkeys when he found their mutilated carcasses in the bushes near his home two days after they were stolen in August, 2017.

Their skins had been removed from the neck down and he only managed to identify them from the markings on their heads.

"I used to rent my donkeys out to people who make money transporting furniture or delivering water. It was a comfortable life," said Maina, as he sipped tea in a cafe in dusty Naivasha.

"After they were stolen, I had no money. We had to cut down on everything from food to education. I took my two children out of boarding school, and we even have to skip meals sometimes. My wife couldn't cope and she left me."

Maina now hires another person's donkey to deliver water to local residents. He earns 500 Kenyan shillings ($US5) daily - less than half what he earned when he had his own animals.

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Donkeys in their owners' shelter in Kamere informal settlement in Naivasha, Kenya, on 22nd August. PICTURE: Nita Bhalla/Thomson Reuters Foundation

In other cases, owners found their stolen donkeys in the abattoir amongst the droves of others in the holding yard.

"I called out 'Boy' and he slowly came to me and started rubbing his head on my leg," said Elijah Ng'ang'a, 28, who discovered his missing donkey, Boy, at an abattoir in 2017.

He said the manager vowed to find out how the stolen donkey ended up there but action came too late as Boy was slaughtered.

Now a motorbike taxi driver, Ng'ang'a earns about 500 Ksh a day - half of his earnings from renting Boy to water vendors - but he cannot afford to buy a new donkey as the animals now sell for 20,000 Ksh up from 8,000 Ksh two years ago.

Tensions around the donkey trade have put local communities at loggerheads with some abattoir owners and managers.

When the Thomson Reuters Foundation approached Star Brilliant's Chief Executive John Kariuki to find out more, he refused to answer any questions and demanded photographs taken of the abattoir's signboard outside the compound be deleted.

When the reporter refused, Star Brilliant staff forced her and her female driver into the compound where they were held for about an hour until the police arrived. The reporter's camera was broken in the incident now under police investigation.

The rapid rate that donkeys are being killed in Kenya and mushrooming illegal networks has prompted hundreds of donkey owners to form neighbourhood groups to protect their animals.

"It was devastating for us. We now take turns to patrol the area at night. Some of us have built shelters for our animals, others who don't have land have to hire watchmen."

- John Nduhiu Kuiyaki, chairman of a donkey owners association in Kamere.

John Nduhiu Kuiyaki, chairman of a donkey owners association in Kamere, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Naivasha - said the group of 30 owners used to have 100 donkeys, but thefts over the last three years have left them with only 50.

"It was devastating for us. We now take turns to patrol the area at night. Some of us have built shelters for our animals, others who don't have land have to hire watchmen," he said.

When animals go missing, donkey owners alert the chairman of their groups, search parties are formed and the case reported to the local police, he said. Donkey owners also organise with police to go to the slaughterhouses to look for their animals.

"We don't know much about this medicine the Chinese make from our donkeys," said Kuiyaki. "All we know is that by killing our donkeys, they are killing us too."

Crackdowns in neighbouring Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia - which closed its donkey abattoirs after public protests - have led to thousands of donkeys now being smuggled across the border to be slaughtered in Kenyan abattoirs.

Animal welfare groups are calling on the Kenyan government to ban the donkey skin trade, arguing the existence of abattoirs is fuelling donkey smuggling across the entire region.

Kenya's Chief Veterinary Officer Njagi agreed some restrictions need to be imposed, but said shutting existing abattoirs would be difficult and mean the loss of jobs.

"We have stopped approving requests to open slaughterhouses and are also putting increased restrictions on existing ones in terms of the number of donkeys they can harvest," he said.

"But we can't ban the trade or shut down the abattoirs as investors have put in millions of dollars into these slaughterhouses."