Donkey pulling a cart with a passenger

Ghana could be without donkeys soon

Donkeys (Equus asinus) are domestic working animals in horse family that have been used for more than 5,000 years. Another name for a donkey is an ass, the male donkey is called a jack, the female a Jenny and young, foal. Donkeys are believed to have been domesticated around 3000 BC from the African Wild Ass (Equus africanus).

There is a report of approximately 5,000-year-old ass skeletons found embedded in tombs in one of the early Pharaonic mortuary complex at Abydos, Middle Egypt. Donkeys served as the ancient transport systems in Africa and Asia. There are 82 references of donkeys in the Bible and it was used by Romans in agriculture and transport, including pastoral services. Donkeys may be considered as the first ungulate to come from Africa and have spread around the world.

In Ghana, donkeys are mostly found in the upper part of the country such as Bolgatanga, Walewale, Dabo, and in some parts of Oti region. Over 14,500 donkeys were owned by Ghanaians in 2015 according to FAOSTAT, and the figure has been dwindling since. The importance of donkeys in the economy has been overlooked for many years considering the contributions donkeys bring to the lives of people in the country.

Donkeys play an important role in agriculture by providing draught power for ploughing of lands, transportation of water over long distances in rural areas, and hiring out the services of the animal to earn a living. In other parts of the world, donkey milk is used in anti-aging cosmetics and has been shown to have superior qualities compared to other animal milk such as cow and goat milk. Donkey milk is considered the closest to human breast milk, thus, it was used to feed orphaned children in the past. Cleopatra is reported to have maintained her soft smooth skin thanks to donkey milk baths. Hippocrates is known to use donkey mild to treat arthritis, cough and wounds. The fashion industry is also known to profit from the skin of donkeys; you can learn more about it in the Fashion TV special, ‘Donkey fashion’.

Donkeys are also used as companion animals/pet and in circus for entertainment. These are major aspects in poor societies which are needed for poverty alleviation and provision of good healthcare for women and children. This indicates that donkeys play a significant role in achieving sustainable development goals 1 and 2.

There are three main threats to donkey populations in Ghana and the world.

First, difficulty in breeding donkeys. The donkey population in the world has been in a declining trend since 2010 with the advent of increased demand to Asia. Data shows that China which has the largest demand has used a chunk of its donkey population which was 11.1 million in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2018. The question then is why not breed to replace? The requirements to breed donkeys successfully are difficult to achieve. In developed country donkey are kept in sophisticated stables with a heatline providing warmth for them in cold weather.

To supply 300,000 donkeys through commercial farming, it would take an area of about 600 square miles which is about 4 times (4x) the area of Kakum national park as each donkey requires at least 0.5 acres of grazing land. Another reason is donkeys require a very long gestation period of about 11-14 months to give birth to one foal and often consumption of high fiber diet to achieve and maintain acceptable minimum body conditions. Production of this high fiber diet is expensive and labor-intensive.

The second threat to the donkey population in Ghana is the trade of donkey hide. It is estimated that the Ejiao industry which depends on gelatin produced from donkey skins and used in traditional Chinese medicine and beauty products requires approximately 4.8 million donkey skins annually. Due to China’s depletion of its stock, it has now turned to the global market to channel significant amounts of donkey skin to meet the demands for Ejiao. This has unfortunately spiked the trade of donkeys across Africa leading to devastating effects on donkey population in Africa. Between 2016 – 2018, 15% of Kenya’s donkey population was slaughtered, a similar situation occurred in Ghana such that the price of a donkey doubled. You can learn more about how donkey meat has sadly become a delicacy on BBC Lifestyle this Christmas.

The third and final threat is the lack of enforcement of laws relating to donkey trade and welfare. On 17th January 2017, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture banned the slaughter and export of donkey skin in Ghana. This ban was met with undeniable disregard from persons in the donkey trade business. The lack of enforcement facilitated this trade to thrive to the extent that Ghana currently relies on neighboring countries for the supply of donkeys. Donkey importation has added to the myriad of exchange rate wreckers in our economy. To the animal and veterinary industry, donkey importation should be of utmost concern as it constitutes a plausible gateway for disease transmission, especially to areas where poverty is already rife. This lack of law enforcement on the ban has also left Ghana as a hotspot for donkey smuggling across Africa.

Finally, these demands and an unrelenting thirst for donkey skin have made donkeys one of the most abused animals in Africa. The incessant demand of the animal from global market coupled with the lack of rapid breeding raises concern that Ghana will be without donkeys very shortly.