Chinese hunger for ejiao, a gelatin prized for its use in the country’s traditional medicine and cosmetics industries, is threatening the existence of Brazil’s donkey population, with the animals often suffering heartbreaking cruelty and maltreatment before slaughter.
Eijao, obtained by soaking and stewing donkey skins, has been used for medicinal purposes in China for centuries. But the increased wealth of its burgeoning middle classes has led to skyrocketing demand and an explosion in the value of the product, creating a powerful industry. China consumes almost five million donkey skins a year – each worth up to £3,000 on the Asian market, according to some sources.
Donkeys are hard to breed, so China has turned to poor corners of the world to meet demand. A concerted campaign by Chinese companies, allied with political pressure, has seen hundreds of thousands of donkeys exported from Africa and South America. And in the often impoverished rural parts of northeast Brazil, that has had devastating consequences for the animal’s chances of survival – and the region’s way of life.
“If you’ve got one, hang on to it,” says leather-hatted farmer Jose Araujo de Souza at the livestock market in Cansancao, 220 miles from Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia. “The donkey’s days are numbered!” he continues, as three mules wait patiently for their new owner in a nearby patch of shade.
The donkey’s strength and toughness mean it is ideally suited to the backbreaking labour of the vast sertao, the parched hinterland of Brazil, and have traditionally made it a familiar sight throughout this harsh, scrub-like landscape. But on a recent 1,600-mile trek across the sertao to the southwest of Bahia, a region where the trade in donkey skins is most intense, this reporter spotted only 15 animals.
Since agreeing to export donkey meat and leather to China in July 2017, over 100,000 donkeys have been killed in three slaughterhouses in Bahia, and the state’s goal is to export 200,000 a year – even though, according to official statistics from 2012, Brazil is home to just over 900,000 donkeys. If the slaughter hits the rates sought by China, donkeys could disappear from Brazil in less than five years.
Opportunist traders catch the donkeys in the wild or buy them from peasants clueless to their potential value for as little as £10. Unscrupulous players – such as rural workers, traders, transporters, farmers and logistics companies – make up a supply chain filled with shady practices and little effective regulation.
The donkeys are transported in trucks along backroads at night, sometimes for more than a thousand miles with no food or water, to dodge checks on obligatory permits. They are then held by local farmers in holding pens near the slaughterhouses, which are often owned by Chinese firms. Herysnaldo Marinho, who owns such a farm in the Bahian hinterland, freely admits that permits are forged or fudged to conceal the animals’ true origin. One of 12 suppliers of donkeys to the Cabra Forte meatpacking company, he says truck drivers inaccurately list his farm as their cargo’s point of origin. Actually, he says, the donkeys arrive from a trader known only as “Moral” who roams the northeast in search of the animal.
This lack of regulation and inspection can have chilling consequences for the donkeys themselves. In 2018, vultures circled a farm adjacent to the Regional Sudoeste Meatpacking Plant in the town of Itapetinga. When locals arrived at the property, they found more than a thousand donkeys prostrate on the ground. Two hundred were dead, while another 800 were too hungry, thirsty or weak to move. A video shows a young donkey trying to escape from the body of its mother, who was too sickly to give birth. Both later died. In another, a weakened donkey struggles to free itself from a suffocating mass of bodies.
The farm was rented by the Chinese brokerage firm Cuifeng Lin, which bears the same name as its owner. Lin and her husband, Zenan Wen, were eventually charged with cruelty to animals and polluting a nearby river, poisoned by the decomposing bodies of the donkeys. In November 2018, a court banned donkey slaughter throughout the state of Bahia. Cuifeng Lin declined to comment.
“It was terrible, we’ve never seen anything like it here,” recalls Itapetinga police chief Irineu Andrade. “The animals didn’t have enough food, and they went to the river in search of water, and ended up floating away, because they couldn’t get back [as they were so weak]”.
Days after the horrific scenes at Itapetinga were discovered, a second farm in the region was shut down. Its owner Joao Batista, who had been paid £28 for each truckload of donkeys that passed through his farm, was fined.
“I felt bad for the animals, you suffer alongside them,” Batista says, regretfully. “The donkeys were already starving when they left [the neighbouring state of] Pernambuco and then went two or three days without food, and when they got here, they were gnawing at the bark of the plants.”
Five months later, in Euclides da Cunha, 430 miles from Itapetinga, new allegations of abuse involving Cuifeng Lin arose. At the Santa Isabel farm, another 800 animals were found living in similarly unhealthy conditions, while at least another 400 were dead. “None of the trucks that came here had a transport permit,” says Marcia Costa Miranda, the manager of the property. “I thought it was wrong, because so many donkeys were dying, but I'm not an inspector, so what was I supposed to do?”
According to Miranda, the company kept the animals short of food on purpose. “They said malnourished ones were good because their skin came off easier,” she says.
Even after the court banned donkey slaughter, truckloads of animals continued to arrive at the farm. The new arrivals were unloaded and confined to a cramped area, devoid of pasture.
Nor does the situation improve further along the supply chain. Until recently no Brazilian firm had permission to export the donkeys’ skins and meat. Instead they were bought by logistics companies from other parts of Asia – who pay between £50 and £75 per animal – and transported from Salvador to ports such as Hai Phong in Vietnam and Hong Kong. “The donkeys arrive as contraband,” says Rui Leal of the Bahia Farming Safety Agency.
The economic needs of the disadvantaged northeast of Brazil, however, mean many – including leading politicians – are willing to turn a blind eye to what they see as little more than red tape.
When the slaughter of donkeys was banned in Bahia, the small town of Amargosa lost 150 direct and 200 indirect jobs through the closure of the Frinordeste meatpacking plant. As a result, local businesspeople and the town council, supported by many of the town’s residents, appealed the decision.
The injunction was eventually overturned in September this year, with the regional branch of Brazil’s federal court declaring that the ban caused “serious damage to the order and the economy of the region” and resulted in a “loss of national and international investment.”
“You could feel that people were celebrating when the donkey slaughtering restarted,” says local radio director Eduardo Gordiano. “There were no complaints of mistreated donkeys here, and people didn’t care about what happened in the other towns.”
According to Brazilian tax records, there are two Brazilian and two Chinese representatives on the Frinordeste board. But according to businessman Walter Andrade Filho, or “Leather Walter” as he is known, one of four approved suppliers of donkeys to the meatpacking firm, today Frinordeste is entirely Chinese owned. The company recently became the first Brazilian business allowed to export donkeys directly to China. That will lead to significant growth in the trade in donkey skins. “Everything’s ready to get [the slaughterhouse] up and running,” he says. “People can’t wait to kill the donkeys.”
He sees even greater demand in the future. “Today we get the donkeys from nature, for free or for next to nothing, but if China keeps buying, we’ll start to produce them,” he says.
Some, however, believe that Brazilian donkeys are being sold on the cheap, compared to what they are worth in China. “The donkeys are going to the Chinese as free gifts,” says Sonia Martins Teodoro, representative of the SOS Animals NGO in Itapetinga, which monitors complaints of abuse.
While the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture did not provide official data on the industry, approximate calculations show that the donkey trade generated a gross revenue of around £7.5m to the meatpackers of Bahia in little over a year – suggesting a tiny fraction of the trade’s eventual value.
The deal with China was brokered by Brazilian and Bahian governments as a carrot to attract further investment, according to Teodoro. Bahia hopes to receive major Chinese infrastructure works in the next few years, including the construction and revitalization of ports, bridges and railway lines.
The surviving donkeys in Itapetinga had to be put down, while those from Euclides da Cunha were adopted by the National Donkey Defence Front, an NGO attempting to halt the mistreatment. Almost a year later, some of the donkeys are still vulnerable. “Some are still debilitated, and can’t stand up on their own,” says vet Aline Rocha, who cares for them on a daily basis.
Illness is another threat to the donkeys. According to an analysis, about five per cent of the animals at Euclides da Cunha died from diseases such as glanders and infectious anaemia. “Stress intensifies the diseases, which are transmitted between the animals, like in a concentration camp,” says vet Pierre Barnabe Escodro, a professor at the Federal University of Alagoas.
In some parts of the northeast, however, the donkey is still an essential – and sustainable – part of life. In the town of Valente in Bahia, they are used in the sisal industry, carrying the leaves of the plant along narrow, overgrown paths to the processing machine, and from there to the lines where the fibres dry.
Jose de Jesus, 59, works with his donkey Ze Mane from Monday to Thursday – on the other days the animal gets a rest. “He’s gentle and a hard worker,” says the farmer, who has worked alongside his colleague for two decades. The sisal industry, which employs 3,000 families and cares for 3,000 donkeys, generated £7.55m last year.
Other potentially sustainable uses of donkeys are equine therapy, rural tourism and even milk production. Adroaldo Jose Zanella, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, is working urgently to develop sustainable strategies for the donkeys of the northeast of Brazil.
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