BEITBRIDGE: Police here have joined forces with a local animal rights group to follow up reports that donkeys in the area were being smuggled into neighbouring South Africa where they are skinned with their hide exported to China.
Animal and Wildlife Area Research and Rehabilitation Trust (AWARE), which treats donkeys and also assists farmers in the upkeep of the animals, confirmed the development.
"There is a case under investigation which happened in an area called Chapfuche in Beitbridge. We are very happy that the ZRP has taken action so quickly," Dr. Keith Dutlow the director of AWARE confirmed in an interview.
Reports show that there is a high demand of donkey skins in China where the hides are processed into ejiao, a traditional medicinal product, believed to prolong people's lives among other health benefits.
However, the hunt for donkey skins has reached the Beitbridge area affecting poor villagers whose donkeys are being targeted by smugglers and are being sold for a song.
The smugglers are reported to be buying the donkeys for as little as 300 rands ($23) per animal from hard pressed villagers before driving them into South Africa.
On average a donkey in the area fetches between R1,500 ($115) and R2,000 ($154).
In South Africa, the donkeys are slaughtered for their meat, which is fed to lions in nearby game parks, while the skin is processed and shipped to China.
"This is a sad development. Slaughtering the donkeys for their hides may compromise this pivotal role that donkeys have been known to play. Donkey populations will dwindle in a few years. This development is akin to deforestation whereby people cut trees without planting new ones. The equation will not balance," said Dr. Dutlow.
Zimbabwe has an estimated donkey population of 175,000.
Dr. Dutlow expressed fears that the donkey population in Zimbabwe would dwindle if smuggling is not curbed as the country has no plan of action to maintain donkey production or breeding in light of the high demand Chinese market for the skins.
"There are no programmes in place that are promoting donkey production to increase numbers, yet in this (ejiao) trade, donkeys are and will be slaughtered in numbers.
"Yes, people may be lured into getting a few dollars through the sale of the donkeys, but that will not be sustainable. People should not be short-changed into selling their donkeys at the expense of their livelihoods.
“People should not allow cruelty to animals to take place in the communities and should report to police whenever they see this happening," said Dr. Dutlow.
A UK-based organisation, Donkey Sanctuary, has urged countries to monitor the Chinese donkey trade in the interests of both the animal and the welfare of the people.
"The global trading of donkey skins is now having an impact on donkey welfare and the livelihood of the people around the world.
“The current demand for (donkey) skins is relentless, and as the key ingredient in the prized traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao, their prices have rocketed," Mike Baker, chief executive of Donkey Sanctuary said in a recent report issued by his organisation.
Zimbabwe was cited in the Donkey Sanctuary report as one of the countries in Africa at a risk of having a depleted donkey herd if it did not regulate its trade in hides to the Chinese market.