“They call me Mr. Punda!”
It is not an insult to be called Mr. Donkey when you are John Kariuki. If anything, he flashes a toothy grin while referring to his moniker. Donkeys have been making him a lot of money, but not quite in the way that most Kenyans would think. He’s the owner and C.E.O of Star Brilliant Donkey abattoir, one of three abattoirs in Kenya built specifically for the slaughter of donkeys.
In a country where (save for Turkana) even the mention of donkey meat churns stomachs, Kariuki, who has been trading in animal hides and skins for the past 31 years sensed an opportunity after years of pestering from some of his clients about donkeys.
“Some of my clients from China kept asking me, do you have donkey skins? I used to tell them that we Kenyans don’t eat donkeys so I don’t have the skins. They kept asking and asking until one day I got interested. So I went to the Vet labs (Kenya Veterinary Board) to ask. I found that donkeys had been classified as edible livestock since 1999!”
So began his journey to founding his abattoir, and getting into a market where new(ish) demand for donkeys from around the world is almost insatiable thousands of miles away, in China. Chinese demand for donkey hide, though, is thousands of years old. Donkey hide is used to make ejiao, a hard gelatin or glue that is made from boiling and stewing the hide. It is a hallmark of China’s traditional medical heritage, used to treat blood deficiency. Its first use dates back to around 2,500 years ago, during the reign of the Tang dynasty. Ejiao was a precious gift, offered by Emperors to honoured guests. The use of donkey hide specifically, as opposed to hides from other animals, was arrived at after the gelatin from donkey hide was claimed to have the exact properties needed for the curing of blood deficiency.
Today, ejiao is a popular product in China’s cornerstone traditional medicine industry, but the supply of the gelatin is waning, due to falling numbers of donkeys in China. This has spurred the rise of fake ejiao products, and a spike in demand for donkeys, whose numbers in China have fallen from 11 million in 1990 to 6 million in 2014. So China has turned to the world to support its time-honoured medicine through the supply of its donkeys; and John Kariuki has responded.
“We export between 5200 and 5600 hides to China every month,” Kariuki tells me as we stand inside his donkey skin preservation room.
“One hide goes for 142 dollars. I am giving you the current market rate!” The average price of one donkey in Naivasha is 100 USD (10,000 Shillings).
This means that every month, Kariuki’s revenues from donkey hides alone range between 738,000 USD and 795000 USD (between 73 and 79 million shillings).
That isn’t to say that the rest of the donkey isn’t valuable. Kariuki leads us through every section of his abattoir, and it is run like a machine. His abattoir runs 24 hours a day, with two shifts of workers that stun, slaughter, skin, chop down, debone and pack nearly every part of the donkey.
“We export the eyes, the cheek, red offals (liver, kidneys), green offals (intestines). We even export the donkey’s penis.”A majority of the meat is exported to China, with a small percentage going to Vietnam. Aside from the gelatin that the Chinese make from donkey hide, the Chinese eat donkey meat and have done so for many years. But China’s culinary traditions are taboo just a few kilometres away from the abattoir.
“My religious beliefs and my love for this animal would never allow me to slaughter and eat it,” Jefferson Mbuthia points down at the two beasts drawing his cart as he says this. I meet him on a dusty field in the centre of Naivasha town. He, along with tens of other donkey owners aren’t just revolted by the idea of eating their precious animals, they are desperate for a way to save them. A donkey theft crime wave has hit the town, as well as neighbouring counties with high donkey populations like Kiambu.
Jefferson and other donkey owners who have lost animals are even more disheartened by an alleged lack of action from the police.
“Do you want us to guard donkeys?” was the sarcastic question one Police officer allegedly asked Jefferson when he had gone to report the theft of his donkeys.
According to animal welfare organization, Farming Systems Kenya, 122 cases of donkey theft have been reported to the police, with over 40 carcasses found in the bush, skins missing.
As Jefferson and his friends, brought together by the poaching stand in a semi-circle trading stories, one of them poses: “ We should tell one another when a donkey thief is caught. We should just deal with them then and there!” That this inflammatory statement went without challenge from the group spoke volumes about just how desperate, and upset they are about the whole affair.
Dr. Raphael Kinoti understands the desperation but judges this to be a problem of much larger proportions than even the donkey owners understand.
“We just don’t have the structures (to support the legal slaughter of donkeys). The value chain isn’t properly set up.” He could well be right. Kenya does not breed donkeys for slaughter, meaning that almost every donkey that is bred is bred for work. An investigation into the global trade of donkeys by UK-based charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, places global demand for the beasts at 10 million animals a year, against a supply of just 1.8 million donkeys. With that kind of mismatch, the price of donkey hides can only go up, making the donkey an even more attractive catch for businessmen like Kariuki, and those who conduct their business in the bush.
“This is clean, cold capitalism. Nobody is thinking about the donkey!” Dr. Kinoti adds.
Nobody, except for Kenya’s poorest. The donkey is, after all, the poor man’s car.