A new report by The Donkey Sanctuary into the donkey skin trade has laid bare the previously unrecognised serious biosecurity risk posed by the unregulated and often illegal industry.
Speaking via its website, the organisation said testing carried out on 108 donkey skin samples from an abattoir in Kenya found 88 were carrying the staphylococcus aureus bacteria, including 44 samples positive for the methicillin-resistant (MRSA) strain.
“Three S. aureus samples were positive for the PVL- toxin known to cause invasive necrotising disease in humans.
“These test results, conducted by The Donkey Sanctuary and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya (ILRI), have been revealed in the report Biosecurity Risks and Implication for Human and Animal Health on a Global Scale.
It said that the findings of the report would be presented at the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources Pan-African Donkey Conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on December 1 and 2,2022.
According to the report, zoonotic diseases are one of the biggest threats to public health worldwide and unsanitary slaughter methods in slaughterhouses are creating potentially devastating biosecurity hazards.
It said that the diseases identified in the samples taken by The Donkey Sanctuary represent a danger to both human and equine health, even when shipped across great distances.
“S. aureus can survive long periods of transit on poorly preserved skins, meaning that it can infect humans and animals at the point of slaughter as well as during transit and on delivery in the destination country.
“African Horse Sickness (AHS) can be carried by vector insects (cullicoides midge), which may have the potential to survive long journeys in shipping containers and infect new equine hosts on arrival,” it explained.
The report said that nearly five million donkeys were traded and slaughtered for their skins each year, a trade that international charity The Donkey Sanctuary has been working to eradicate.
It said that the global trade in donkey skins results in suffering for donkeys and donkey-dependent communities on a devastating scale.
The report added that the demand for donkey skins was driven by the production of ejiao, a traditional Chinese remedy believed by some to have medicinal properties.
“The huge numbers of donkeys involved, the indiscriminate and often unhygienic slaughter, including of those that are sick, the disparate way skins are shipped and transported, and the global nature of the trade, all add up to the high risk posed by skins intended for ejiao production that are contaminated with disease-causing agents,” it said.
In addition to these health risks to the people and equines exposed to these skins, the biosecurity implications for the destination countries are considerable.
“Diseases that are endemic in source countries may not be present at all in transit or destination countries, leading to potential outbreaks of diseases in local, naïve equine populations,” it explained.
In her comment, the chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary, Ms. Marianne Steele said there was evidence that the trade is “neither humane, sustainable nor safe and allowing it to continue, given the risks we have revealed, is unanswerable”.
Despite many opting to turn away from the direct impacts on animals and people, Steele called on consumers, governments and the wider public to take notice of the risks to animal and human health.
“The global trade in donkey skins should be halted immediately. If nothing else, the recent lessons of COVID-19, and the current outbreak of avian flu, should make us sit up and take notice of the emerging threats that zoonotic diseases pose.
“The trade currently operates without adequate veterinary and biosecurity protocols. The unregulated and clandestine nature of much of the trade also means that shipments are often impossible to track, and contaminated skins are therefore unable to be traced.
“Poor and unsanitary slaughtering conditions are a key contributor to the trade’s biosecurity hazards, particularly in cases where large groups of animals from different populations are brought together,” she said.
According to her, the majority of the trade relies on illegal backyard slaughtering, which increases the risk of donkey skins being contaminated by disturbed soil or other infectious agents. Where multiple species are slaughtered at the same location there is a further risk of cross-contamination.
“But even skins processed in licenced slaughterhouses constitute a biosecurity risk. All of the contaminated skin samples identified by The Donkey Sanctuary originated in a licensed slaughterhouse in Kenya,” she explained.
According to her, in the same month the samples were collected, consignments of skins were collected from this location and shipped to a destination in China.
“The Donkey Sanctuary is calling on the governments of China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand to immediately stop the import of donkey skins and on the national governments of exporting countries to take immediate steps to stop the trade in donkey skins,” she called.
The Donkey Sanctuary’s executive director, equine operations, Dr. Faith Burden said the findings throughout the report were shocking.
Burden said that the disease risks for animals and humans were obvious, with poor hygiene at all stages of the trade.
“The lack of traceability and basic biosecurity should alarm anyone involved in the trade and puts people and animals in general at significant risk.
“The skins tested were from one slaughterhouse sourced on one day – I am sure that skins from other sources and in other countries and continents if tested, could indicate the presence of other important pathogens such as glanders, equine influenza and African swine fever,” she said.
Meanwhile, some public health experts who reacted to the findings said that Nigeria has one of the most robust bans on the export of donkey skins in the world, but The Donkey Sanctuary estimates that there were still thousands of unlicenced slaughterhouses operating in the country.
It is believed, the report said, that up to one million donkeys are illegally slaughtered for the skins in the country annually, with these skins then being exported around the world – a situation made worse by the presence of African Horse Sickness and Equine Influenza in Nigerian donkey populations.