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Report: Donkey trade linked to the rise in diseases

By Caroline Chebet
Donkeys being transported on foot in Narok for slaughtering at Goldox export Slaughterhouse at Chemogoch area, Mogotio in Baringo.Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard

An animal welfare organisation has warned that unregulated cross-border movement of donkeys and poor hygiene in slaughterhouses increases the risk of the spread of diseases.

In a report released last month titled Under the Skin, the Donkey Sanctuary notes that donkeys are silent carriers of many diseases and often do not show signs of sickness.

Those handling donkeys and donkey hides risk contracting several zoonotic illnesses.

Kenya, which hosts four licensed slaughterhouses, has put its citizens and livestock at high risk of contracting anthrax, rabies, and brucellosis, among other zoonotic diseases, the charity warns.

“This large-scale movement of donkeys, often illegally and when they are under significant stress, poses an infection risk to all animals in the nearby environment” states the report.

It adds: “Donkeys owned by communities along trade routes are at risk of being infected with diseases carried by donkeys ‘passing through’; not only by direct contact but also via a bite from an infected carrier vector such as a tsetse fly.”

Slaughterhouses, the report notes, hardly check for disease when the donkeys don’t look sickly. “Tests are rarely conducted on donkeys and therefore they remain undiagnosed as they travel across borders.”

In April last year, the World Veterinary Association called for a halt to the trade, both legal and illegal, in donkey hide. The group urged governments and local authorities to support communities affected by the decimation of donkey populations.

The hides are used to produce gelatin known as ejiao that is the key ingredient of one of China’s most popular traditional remedies and is used to treat various ailments.

The indiscriminate slaughter of donkeys without regard for their health status, coupled with the unhygienic conditions in which they are slaughtered and their hides processed, the report notes, raises the risk that hides intended for ejiao production may be contaminated with disease-causing agents.

Zoonotic diseases

Those handling donkeys and donkey hides risk contracting zoonotic diseases during the slaughter, skinning, and processing of the animals.

“Rarely are appropriate bio-security measures or hygiene equipment and procedures in place during these processes, leaving people highly vulnerable to contracting deadly infectious diseases,” the report warns.

Cases of diseases, the report notes, have been experienced in West African countries. In Nigeria, 2,929 documented cases of equine influenza resulted in the deaths of 270 donkeys.

The Donkey Sanctuary says that 60,000 donkeys across West Africa died from various diseases this year alone.

“These deaths may not have been a direct result of the skin trade; however, they appear to have occurred along known live trade routes for donkeys. Such large losses demonstrate the potential for devastation to donkey populations as a result of disease spread and highlight the risks associated with movements of live animals across borders.”

Similar cases in Kenya and 43 other countries across the continent remained undiagnosed although reports of outbreaks were made.

“While the precise source of the outbreak is unknown, it is suspected to be due to the ‘illegal movement of animals’ largely sourced from a neighbouring country. Other countries told of a variety of symptoms and high mortality rates, but the causative disease in these countries remained undiagnosed,” the report reads.

But even as the report warns about undocumented cases of sicknesses, donkey advocacy groups, donkey owners and veterinary officers in Kenya have warned of outbreaks in Naivasha and Mogotio.

Farming Systems Kenya Director Raphael Kinoti said there was a concern that diseases could spread from donkeys to cows due to the poor disposal of waste by slaughterhouses in the two towns.

Brooke East Africa, another animal welfare organisation, also attributed the spread of diseases to the mixing of native donkey populations with animals on transit to be slaughtered.

“When sick donkeys are carried with healthy ones, the spread of diseases becomes higher. The situation worsens because of the sick donkeys will transmit diseases to livestock neighbouring the slaughterhouses,” said the charity’s CEO Fred Ochieng’.

In its findings, the Donkey Sanctuary recommends the adoption of mitigating measures such as imposing strict bio-security protocols as well as ensuring full traceability and treatment of donkey products.

Tracking system

But the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) recently said there was no tracking system in the region despite the booming donkey trade.

“A traceability system requires a lot of resources and currently is not effective in the region despite the rise in cross-border movement of donkeys,” said Wamalwa Kinyanjui, an Igad official, during a regional donkey conference last week.

Currently, the International Coalition for Working Equids – an alliance between Brooke, the Donkey Sanctuary, SPANA, and World Horse Welfare – has produced a series of educational materials based on best practice bio-security procedures.

The materials are offered to countries battling diseases in their donkey and horse populations, particularly when the diseases spread across national borders and pose a threat to communities who rely on donkeys for their livelihoods.

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