In mid-2016, the West Africa Heads of Veterinary Services decided to ban the indiscriminate slaughter of donkeys and the exportation of their skins, a directive which was never enforced in Ghana at the time. Ghana then emerged as the regional slaughterhouse.
According to the Ghana Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, as at the last donkey census carried out in 2015, Ghanaians owned some 14,500 donkeys. It however says the number has declined sharply due to the slaughter of the animals.
High demand for donkey hide
China's domestic donkey population no longer meets the demand of the Chinese middle class — partly because mass donkey breeding is very difficult. So it comes as no surprise that many African countries, with large donkey populations and strong economic ties with China, have become one of the main sources of donkey-hide gelatin for ejiao manufacturers.
Demand for donkey hide, which is boiled to produce gelatine - the key ingredient in a medicine called ejiao in China - has raised the price and the rate of slaughter of the animals, threatening the livelihoods of poor communities who rely on them.
The emergence of the global trade in donkey hide is attributed to the rise of China's middle class and increased perception of the medicine's efficacy. Ejiao can sell for up to £300 per kilo. The medicines created from the hide serve as blood tonic, aphrodisiacs and anti-ageing creams.
The consumption of donkey meat is also a popular tradition in some parts of China, where it is highly expensive. Some groups in Africa also eat donkey meat, considered an inexpensive and accessible source of animal protein, but only from the slaughter of donkeys too old or incapacitated to work. In some communities too, its consumption is considered taboo.
The demand is now outstripping supply. According to the animal-protection organization, PETA, 1.8 million donkeys are killed per year in China alone, while global demand is estimated between 4 to 10 million skins. This has raised the price of donkeys in some countries, making them unaffordable for many people who use them to convey goods to market, cultivate land, and fetch water.
In Ghana, the Chinese initially set up several factories across the country, with one in the North East Region, to process donkey hides and meat for export, but many of those including Blue Coast, a known slaughter house at Walewale, has been closed down by the Assembly after several reported cases of donkey theft.
Now the slaughter of donkeys is carried out by the locals largely in the Upper East Region. They sell the hides to Chinese dealers through middle men, whiles the meat is smoked and sold in larger markets in Techiman, Kumasi and Accra.
The Ghana Society for the Protection and Care of Animals therefore was deeply concerned that donkeys are on the way to getting extinct in Ghana. It also said, donkey's welfare is at stake if the law is not enforced, as Ghana's poorest citizens who rely on donkeys for farming activities and the transportation of goods, especially in rural areas, are going to be affected in a catastrophic way.
Is the 2016 ban being enforced?
The Acting Director of Veterinary Service Department of the Agriculture Ministry, Dr. Patrick Abakah has revealed that the ban on slaughtering and exportation of donkey meat in Ghana is still in force.
According to Dr Abakah, the ban was placed on the animal since 2016 when the country realised that Chinese nationals and their Ghanaian counterparts were killing the animals and exporting their skin.
He revealed this to the Republic Press in an exclusive interview last week in the Upper East Region during the tour of the Minister of Agriculture and his entourage to the three northern regions namely Northern, North East and the Upper East regions to interact with farmers and stakeholders in the Agricultural industry.
Dr Abakah said the department took these steps because the donkeys' population in the country is at the verge of extinction “so if we don't put in measures to stop these activities in the next five to six years, we will have to go to the zoo for the younger ones generation of the species.”
The controversy about the ban
In 2020, the Deputy Minister of Food and Agriculture (now former Minister), Dr. Sagri Bambangi, tacitly endorsed the killing of donkeys for commercial purposes in Ghana although there's an existing ban by his Ministry on donkey trade.
Dr. Sagri Bambangi, said in an interview with Citi Business News that donkeys have outlived their usefulness with the introduction of tricycles in the country, which does the perfect job of the donkey cart.
The former MP compared the donkeys to inventions that have phased out due to technological advancements, and said he does not support any ban on the killing of donkeys for commercial purposes.
“They are becoming less significant because of the era of the motor tricycles. The motor tricycles have effectively substituted the donkey carts and they happened to be better substitutes even though they take fuel, it is better to work with a motor tricycle than a donkey cart which is much drudgery.”
Dr. Sagri Bambangi, the Deputy Agric Minister, also referred to donkeys as stubborn animals that have outlived their relevance in modern day.
Nantogmah Abdullai, a donkey cart operator at Nalerigu in North East Region, whose donkey has served him for nine consecutive years, thinks the position of the Deputy Minister of Agriculture on donkeys was insensitive and would affect many rural people.
“Truth be told, donkeys are important to us. I have been working with this donkey for 9 nine years. It does all the farm work and business for us. It sustains the house for us.”
But the former MP rather views the donkeys as cash cows, especially with the new Chinese thirst for donkey hides in Ghana.
“His position perhaps explains why there is wanton killing of donkeys for commercial purposes despite the call by the West Africa Heads of Veterinary Services to enforce the ban on donkey trade”, the donkey carted operator reacted to the Citi Business News after the former deputy Minister's controversial statement in March 2020.
Ban still in force
The Acting Director of Veterinary Service Department of the Agriculture Ministry, Dr. Patrick Abakah maintained that, the ban is still in force.
“Donkeys are very strong animals which do not wear out easily so they use them to plough their farms because most of the farmers don't have farm implements, that is why the ministry will not allow the animals to go on extinction,” Dr Abakah stated.
He added that Agric Extension Officers have identify two slaughter houses in Walewale and Nelerigu and have directed the Metropolitan and Municipal District Assemblies to collaborate and close those slaughter houses immediately.
Meanwhile, animal rights activists say the ban is being enforced poorly. "As usual, Ghanaians are always ready to pride themselves that they are the first to do this," says Amasaba Aluizah, a coordinator at the Ghana Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (GSPCA). "But what about implementation? The issue is that when it comes to the laws, we are not implementing [them]."
Story by Philip Antoh, with additional files from ghenvironment.org