Donkey crisis

Brazilian donkeys face an uncertain future

Putting economic interests above the value of life, local authorities in Brazil seem fine with letting the Chinese eat donkeys to extinction.

A symbol of Brazil's northeast, the donkey could become extinct.

Image credit: Frente Nacional de Defesa dos Jumentos

Two weeks ago, on November 12th, police shut down an illegal donkey slaughterhouse in Limoeiro, in the outback of Pernambuco state.

According to the police, the place had horse and donkey meat for sale. The police seized 34 live animals and products that were ready to be traded.

According to the National Donkey Taskforce, many of animals were old and sick. The old ones were sold as beef and the young ones as goat.

Besides local trade, the meat was also distributed to well-known restaurants in the capital city of Pernambuco, Recife. The NGO estimates that more than 2000 animals were killed for consumption on the site.

The owner of the place managed to escape. His wife and a son were caught by the police. During the escape, employees opened the gates of the compounds, allowing animals to escape into the wild.

Chinese demand for donkey meat and by-products

This latest case of illegal activity shows how vulnerable these animals, an icon of the Brazilian northeast, have become. Not only in Brazil, but in other parts of the world, as Chinese demands for donkey parts threatens the species with extinction (China recently licensed 24 slaughterhouses in Brazil to process donkey meat).

A symbol of meekness and docility, the donkey is a much-loved animal that has become a sort of refugee in their own land. In Brazil, it is deeply linked to the history of the Northeastern region of the country.

The region, with its huge swaths of arid territories, is home to Brazil’s most ancient folksy traditions. Largely impoverished due to climatic and colonial reasons, it is also where many people emigrated from in search of economic opportunities in the richer south.

The current situation of Brazil’s donkeys

In recent decades, economic shifts and the arrival of the motorcycle as a product of mass consumption made the traditional donkey redundant.

Drifting donkeys became an increasingly common sight as they wandered around looking for food, including in areas adjacent to highways, putting their lives as well as the lives of drivers at risk.

Around 20 years ago, government passed legislation which mandated that all livestock found roaming on or near highways, either feral or owned, could be confiscated and dispatched to compounds.

The compounds, of course, were no spa and animal welfare guidelines virtually non-existent. The animals were not fed property and huddled together in overcrowded pens.

On top of that, a number of clandestine operations started to capture donkeys for slaughter as demand for their meat started to attract the local and the Chinese market.

Slaughter was banned in November 18, but in September a judge overturned the decision, citing the economic benefits of exporting donkey meat and parts to the Chinese market.

Last year, Donkey Sanctuary in the UK, which works with the Brazilian Donkey Taskforce, worked on the case of a compound in Itapetinga, in the southwest of Bahia, where hundreds of donkeys were being kept in what they described as “appalling conditions”.

The NGO said at the time that donkeys living in the wild in Brazil were being targeted by traders and ‘harvested’ for their skins, which are used to produce ejiao, a traditional medicine.

They estimate that around 300 animals had been living in the wild before being captured and transported in “cramped trucks over huge distances”.

Along with its Brazilian partner, the British NGO put pressure on authorities and managed close down the facility, now known as “donkey graveyard”.

“When the team visited the compound in Itapetinga, the only evidence of donkeys being there was bones and dung in the scrubland and some putrid-smelling burial mounds near the entrance, which are patrolled by wild dogs and vultures,” the NGO wrote on its website.

Brazilian donkeys need help

The situation was so dire that Donkey Sanctuary sent an emergency team to the region. They located a new, licensed abattoir in the same region as the compound with a killing capacity of 250 animals per day.

There were two other legal operations of the kind in Bahia, one in Amargosa and  another in Simões Filho. They can export meat and skin.

A driver the team spoke to said he delivered up to 50 donkeys a day to the facility in Itapetinga. Often the animals are submitted to 1,000 km (600 ml) journeys from Pernambuco state of 1,000 km over the course of three days.

Some of the animals die in transit or arrive lame, the driver added.

“We need to throw a light on this – what is happening to donkeys in Brazil is inhumane and sickening and we believe the Itapetinga compound is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Simon Pope, campaigns manager at The Donkey Sanctuary and part of the team in Brazil.

“Other donkey slaughterhouses are currently operating in Brazil and we suspect each of these will have a similar slaughter pen where starving, scared donkeys are awaiting their fate,” he added.

“We want to see the state governments take similar action to that in Itapetinga where there is evidence of inhumane transport and slaughter, against all recognized animal welfare standards.”

An NGO that helps donkeys in Brazil

The National Donkey Taskforce works hard to raise awareness of the plight of these sweet animals. It also looks after hundreds of rescued animals in a sanctuary.

Since January 2019, the organization has the guardianship of 800 animals who had been rounded for slaughter.

For legal as well as health and safety reasons, the animals are still on the same farm in Canudos, Bahia state. The farm had been rented by a Chinese group.

The task force is recovering the animals, neutering and preparing them for adoption by people who love them as they should be loved.

They are currently organizing the procedures for a batch adoption operation in the first fortnight of December. Hopefully, at least a part of the donkeys currently under the organization’s care will be at their forever home before the end of the year.

To make a donation to the National Donkey Taskforce, please follow the link.

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