A donkey rising to the top of the animal hierarchy and taking charge as a sovereign in the Kingdom of Azad Nagar was made possible in the 2018 Pakistani animated film “The Donkey King,” but in reality, the beast of burden continues to have a poor social status in Pakistan. The situation is likely to get worse due to a proposal to export donkeys to China to be skinned, which has left animal rights activists up in arms.

Donkeys support millions of Pakistanis with agriculture, transport and access to markets in both urban and rural settings. They work in brick kilns, are key to water supply for families which travel vast distances to obtain freshwater, and are of great value when traversing rugged terrains.

Over 2,500 donkeys in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and the capital of Sindh province, are being used to collect garbage, according to Dr. Sher Nawaz, Brooke Pakistan’s Regional Manager in Sindh. Donkeys, he says, play a substantial but unrecognized role in managing the city’s solid waste.


Credit: Waleed Tariq

Dr. Sher Nawaz, Brooke Pakistan’s Regional Manager in Sindh.

They are the lifeblood of many communities, but concerns over their health are often ignored.

Pakistan has close to five million donkeys, according to surveys conducted by the Pakistan Livestock Census and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. However, there is a scarcity of the animal in China, which has witnessed its donkey population being halved since the 1990s.

This is mainly because the demand for ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine made out of boiling and extracting donkey skin, has risen drastically in China. The popular “miracle elixir” is thought to enrich blood and cure many illnesses including low-immunity and impotence.

Hence, donkeys are being imported into China for slaughter.

And as the economy takes a downturn in Pakistan with the current government facing a sheer foreign exchange shortage, the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the northwest of Pakistan plans to export live donkeys to China.

Initially conceived in 2017, the provincial government plans to collaborate with the Chinese government to export 80,000 donkeys to its “all-weather friend” in three years.

The US$14.7 million “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-China Sustainable Donkey Development Program” is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project to attract investment in the province’s agriculture sector.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa livestock department official Dr. Asal Khan says that since donkeys have an economic value in China, a joint venture was proposed. However, he adds, the project has not been materialized because the province has so far been unable to attract an official bid from China. “Inshallah [God willing] we will begin with the joint venture once we find a state-owned Chinese company or investor,” he says.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A boy fills drinking water containers from a roadside hand pump while he transports them on a donkey cart for sale in Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Given the existing vulnerable conditions of the pack animal in Pakistan, animal welfare organizations have expressed concern over Pakistan’s plan.

Some have urged the government to drop these plans. Others are worried about the welfare of animals caught up in skin trade, and the sustainability of the project itself.

In a letter to Pakistan’s Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research, Sahibzada Mehboob Sultan, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India appealed to “spare donkeys suffering” by shelving the project. It cited a PETA Asia investigation into the inhumane donkey slaughter in China which, it says, has insufficient laws to protect animals.

Zain Mustafa, head of the Karachi-based Society for Protection of Animal Rights (SPAR), terms the farming and export of live donkeys a “desperate measure and entirely unnecessary.”

“At SPAR, we do not agree with the live donkey farming and export project,” he says, adding that the deal “needs to be nipped in the bud” before it sets a precedent.

The Donkey Sanctuary, meanwhile, has called to cease the trade “until it can be shown to be humane and sustainable.”

“We are extremely concerned about the welfare of the animals caught up in the skin trade. Sourcing, handling, holding, transport and slaughter are all major issues where we have seen horrendous animal welfare violations as part of this trade,” says Catherine Rice, a spokesperson for the UK-based charity, in an email interview with The News Lens.

As witnessed in other countries, Rice adds, even if a donkey dies an inhumane death through poor handling, i.e. stress, starvation or dehydration, its skin will still be used for ejiao. “We have heard reports from some middlemen that dehydration makes the skins easier to remove,” she says.

Brooke Pakistan’s advocacy manager Syed Nadeem Abbas has a similar apprehension. He believes that if trade starts without enough attention given to animal welfare, there could be serious risks in the transit and slaughter of thousands of donkeys similar to those witnessed in Africa before.

Reacting to the outcry by animal rights organizations, the livestock department’s Khan says there is nothing on the ground so far. “Why have they become so active when the project has not even started… there is no issue of animal welfare [in this project],” asserts Khan.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A man walks beside his donkey and cart carrying steel bars on a foggy morning in Lahore, Pakistan.

Since Pakistan does not seem to have anything close to 80,000 “spare” donkeys, breeding farms will be established by the provincial livestock department in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Mansehra.

Donkeys, animal rights groups say, are an extremely challenging species to breed, and undertaking an enterprise like this is not feasible. Therefore, holding the small herd in larger groups could lead to greater stress and lower reproduction.

In such an event, the supply of donkeys will have to come from the poor Pakistani equine owning communities. The declining numbers could then further increase the already high prices of the animals – between 35,000 and 50,000 Pakistani rupees, or about US$250 to US$350 – having long-term, detrimental effects on the livelihoods of the poor.

A Brooke Pakistan survey shows that livelihood of at least six people is dependent on one animal.

Assuming that approximately 12 family members would directly or indirectly benefit from the work of a donkey through its life, Rice says that a million Pakistanis will be negatively impacted by removing 80,000 donkeys from their livelihoods.

According to currently available data, the number of animals has dwindled for countries engaging in trade with China. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, the population has fallen by over 50 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Graphs showing the recent decline in donkey populations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Data sourced from FAOSTAT.

Are there any alternatives?

Since the deal appears highly unsustainable, animal welfare bodies have urged the Pakistan government to boost the country’s economy through industry programs to replace donkeys with tractors and other forms of modernization.

“Mechanized technology can be provided to existing donkey owners through micro-finance banks,” says the head of SPAR. “Continuing to use the donkey to move heavy goods is an archaic and cruel practice and should be discarded for good.”

The Donkey Sanctuary calls for investment in donkey welfare, saying that routine vaccination programs, basic owner-level hoof-care and wound-care, and investing in working-equid courses for vet students can bring significant improvements in the lives of both donkeys and the people that depend on them.

Restructuring the existing animal welfare law, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Acts, 1890, for better implementation, is also the need of the hour.

However, working with humans and animals simultaneously is paramount as most of the issues are management issues.

Besides providing medical treatment, food, water and shelter to the donkeys, owners through capacity building and community awareness programs need to be educated on how treating their animal better will help them in the end.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A rickshaw is towed to a workshop for repair on a donkey cart outside Peshawar, Pakistan.

Is it legal to export live animals in Pakistan?

Regardless of the status of the project, Pakistan government’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), following a push-up in the prices of meat and leather in the domestic market, and reports of illegal sale of donkey meat in different parts of Pakistan, banned the export of live animals as well as donkey meat and hides.

The bans are still in place, Khurshid Qureshi, Director Livestock Dairy and Development Board, Punjab confirmed.

The Express Tribune reported that in the 2013-14 financial year, as many as 59,634 donkeys’ hides valued at 44 million rupees (US$310,680) were exported, mainly to countries such as China, Vietnam and Hong Kong. The figure rose to 129,898 hides worth 147 million rupees (US$1.04 million) in 2014-15.

The Ministry of Commerce says the country has good potential to export donkeys to China. A ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The News Lens that products be should be seen in accordance with their economic benefit rather than anything else. “Anything that has economic potential should be put up for trade… why not?”

Read Next: China’s Pakistan Project: A Geopolitical Game-Changer

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.