Farmers in Baringo County have protested after the High Court lifted a ban on the slaughter of donkeys, claiming that the animals will become extinct if the business is not controlled.
The ban took effect in February last year after Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya directed the abattoirs to close, warning that the donkey population was declining drastically.
The court quashed the ban in May this year after the State failed to respond to a petition challenging the legal notice that banned the slaughtering of donkeys.
Star Brilliant Slaughterhouse had sued to bar Mr Munya and Attorney-General Kihara Kariuki from enforcing the notice, saying it had invested millions of shillings in the business and was losing money.
In his ruling, Justice Richard Mwongo said the Attorney-General and the CS failed to file a response, saying the donkey abattoirs had been operating for more than five years.
The growing Chinese demand for traditional medicine, called ejiao, has created a black market, with gangs hired by skin-smuggling networks to steal donkeys.
This sparked anger in communities that depend on the animals for livelihoods, farming and transport.
More than 300,000 donkeys, about 15 percent of Kenya’s donkey population, were slaughtered for their skin and meat in less than three years between April 2016 and December 2018, the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) reported in June last year.
More than 4,000 were reported stolen over the same period, Kalro said.
The report warned that the animals were being slaughtered at a rate five times higher than their population was growing, meaning Kenya’s donkey population could be wiped out by as early as 2023.
And with the court order, locals in Baringo, especially farmers in Mogotio, Maji Mazuri and Mumberes, warn that things are about to get worse.
They complained that the donkey population had drastically dropped in the region and the animals were facing extinction with the setting up of a donkey abattoir in Chemogoch in Mogotio five years ago.
More than 1,000 donkeys were stolen from their owners in Baringo between 2016 and 2019, they said, leading to the impoverishment of many locals who depend on donkeys for their livelihoods.
Court was biased
Led by Lembus advocacy and welfare chairman Joseph Chepokel, Baringo locals now say slaughtering donkeys clashes with the traditions of the community as the animals are regarded as helpers to humans.
He claimed they had also pushed for the slaughterhouses to be shut but the court was biased because it did not consider their grievances and only listened to entrepreneurs.
“The court was unfair to us because they just played to the tune of the investors and failed to summon us to court to air our grievances. We will challenge the decision,” Mr Chepokel said.
Isaac Kaiza said unscrupulous traders had taken advantage of the situation to steal donkeys and sell them to slaughterhouses. Losing their donkeys, they said, had paralysed their businesses as farmers in remote areas rely on them as a means of transport.
“For the past three years, hundreds of donkeys have been killed illegally or stolen from homes, thus depriving farmers of their source of income,” he said.
Farmer Margaret Wambui complained that if no action is taken to stop the wanton slaughter of donkeys, their population may fall below reproductive numbers.
Goldox Kenya Ltd manager George Ogola said they shut the abattoir in February last year on a directive from the government on claims that there was rampant theft of donkeys and a decline in their numbers.
The company was instructed to breed its own animals to mitigate their extinction and contract farmers to supply donkeys as a way of limiting theft.
Mr Ogola said they had contracted more than 2,000 farmers to breed the animals and they will get a constant supply.
The abattoir has also it has started breeding 200 donkeys as they seek to increase the numbers.
The Sh300 million slaughterhouse was among four ordered by the government to shut down last year following concerns about declining numbers and rising theft of donkeys to satisfy the demand for the export market.
Targeting China and Russia
The facility received approval from the government on April 1, 2015 and has been targeting China, Russia and other Far East countries where donkey products are in high demand.
The others that were also closed down were Star Brilliant Abattoir in Maraigushu, Naivasha, Sillzha Ltd in Turkana and Fuhai Machakos Trading Company Ltd, which slaughtered around 1,000 donkeys a day, according to government data.
The ban was a bid to save the animals from extinction following concerns about declining numbers and rising theft.
The policy that allowed the slaughter of donkeys was not thought out well, Mr Munya said at the time, and the closure of abattoirs was a way to tame thefts and restore the donkey to its rightful place in society.
He had raised concerns that the number of donkeys in Kenya was too small to sustain the big international market in China and other countries.
“I ordered the closure of all donkey slaughterhouses … because the small number of donkeys cannot be sustainable to the growing international markets, which would soon lead to the extinction of the animals,” said Mr Munya during a development tour of Mogotio last year.
He added: “Donkeys play a vital role to farmers who rely on them for transportation. Reports indicate that some unscrupulous traders had also started the habit of stealing the animals for sale at slaughterhouses. The four slaughterhouses in the country will continue closed until proper measures are put in place, including breeding, to ensure that we have a good number for exports.”
Slaughtering donkeys has surged in Africa as demand for ejiao jumped 10-fold to about 6,000 tonnes a year in China, whose donkey population, once the world’s largest, has dropped to 4.5 million from 11 million in 1990, United Nations data shows.
Once a luxury item for the elite, ejiao, which comes as a tablet that dissolves in water or an anti-ageing cream, is now widely used by China’s increasingly wealthy middle class and in the diaspora.
Local markets in China cannot keep up with the demand for donkeys, so Chinese businesses turned to other sources and Kenya was a good source.
To meet the demand, the four export slaughterhouses were licensed and started operating in 2016.
The abattoirs had the capacity to slaughter 1,000 donkeys a day sourced from donkey keepers. Other donkeys were allegedly stolen while some were brought in legally and illegally from Ethiopia to meet the demand.