By Hannah Coogans

Against the historical backdrop of Emperor Yongzheng’s Imperial court, a beautifully dressed concubine is offered a small ornate bowl filled with a strange soup and told ‘It’s your big day, My Lady…. The Imperial Kitchen sent you Shandong Ejiao.’

In this popular 2012 Chinese TV drama Empresses in the Palace, the emperor both uses and bestows the Traditional Chinese medicinal product ejiao, or donkey-hide gelatin, to promote fertility. One of the largest ejiao producers in the world, China’s ‘Dong-E-Ejiao’ (DEE), paid for its products to be placed on the show, with ejiao appearing in at least 16 episodes over the four months it aired in Hong Kong. The company has deemed the response a ‘considerable success’ with ejiao rapidly rising in popularity.

Ejiao in Empresses in the Palace. Photo: Screenshot.

Ejiao has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) since the Qing dynasty and is alleged to ‘nourish blood and replenish yin’ according to the PRC Pharmacopoeia. Today, ejiao is sold in medicinal products for ‘women’s health’, cosmetics and even in cake form.

Fuelled by an insatiable demand, ejiao is glamourized and promoted in Hong Kong. It is readily available in snack foods and over 80 traditional medicinal products, only 9 of which are fully licensed proprietary medicines.  Alarmingly, in 2018 the Ombudsman found that TCM manufacturers could ‘circumvent the regulations’ by adding non-medical ingredients to their products and classifying them as ‘healthcare’, thus avoiding TCM safety requirements. In fact, ejiao is often marketed as a ‘healthcare’ food or product, as such it is not subject to the same safety standards as TCM products.

Aside from safety concerns, Hong Kong consumers may not be aware that eijao is in practice an unsustainable and cruel trade, with significant societal impacts in source countries such as Africa and South America.

China remains the largest producer of donkey products and once had the largest donkey population globally. However, as the ejiao market has grown, China’s donkey population has plummeted by nearly 60% since 1992.

Photo: Wikicommons.

According to recent research, DEE imports 40% of its donkey skins from countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and Kazakhstan. Business is growing rapidly and DEE’s ejiao production is predicted to double by 2020, reaching an output value of RMB 52.4 billion. This equates to an annual demand of 10 million donkey skins. As the global population currently stands at 44 million, this demand would amass to nearly one quarter of the world’s donkeys.

Despite efforts to increase its donkey population, China only provides an estimated 1.2million skins annually. Unsurprisingly, the price of DEE ejiao has skyrocketed from RMB 1,500 per kg in 2011 to RMB 4,730 per kg in 2016. In 2016, DEE’s parent company, China Resources Pharmaceutical, acknowledged that increased prices were ‘because of the decrease in donkey stock and the growing demand for donkey-hide’. As a result, there is mounting pressure on exporting countries.

Donkey skins drying in the sun. Photo: George Knowles.

According to the FAO, between 2011 and 2016, Botswana lost 60% of its donkey population, with Columbia losing 48% and Kyrgyzstan losing 40%. Whilst the FAO remains the most reliable data available, the Donkey Sanctuary UK, a leading welfare organisation, indicates that these figures likely do not take into account the rapid rise in donkey slaughter.

The problem is compounded by an increase in illegal slaughter occurring outside of government-led or sanctioned slaughterhouses, often involving stolen donkeys.  Donkey traders in Nigeria now reportedly describe donkeys as “scarce” in areas where they were once plentiful.  The Donkey Sanctuary cites multiple examples of donkeys being stolen from farmers and sold to legal abattoirs. Large scale illegal slaughter has been documented in Ethiopia, Egypt, South Africa and Tanzania. Africa however remains the primary source for China’s ejiao.

For many communities in Africa, donkeys are important for livelihoods. The theft and slaughter of these livestock leaves communities debilitated. The impacts of donkey slaughter have led to bans on exports, starting with Pakistan in 2015. According to the Society of Protection of Animals Abroad, at least 10 African countries have restricted or banned donkey trade include Mali, Botswana, Tanzania and Niger.

Irrespective of mounting concerns in Africa, back in Hong Kong, ejiao products remain popular and recklessly promoted on TV dramas.

Maasai women in northern Tanzania. Photo: Courtesy of the Donkey Sanctuary.

Further, early this year The Hong Kong Baptist University reported numerous ejiao TCM products containing pig or horse skin instead of donkey, which raises questions of ejiao’s effectiveness.  Concern over ejiao’s efficacy is highlighted by controversial statements disseminated by China’s medical hotline ‘National Health 12320’official Weibo account, which, in February 2018, denounced the use of ejiao. The post titled ‘Ejiao is not worth buying during holidays’ called ejiao ‘the most-hyped health supplement’ and stated ‘… if we see through the hype… ejiao is just boiled donkey skin.’[13]

After attracting public attention, the post was removed and an officially apology issued. Ejiao’s precarious reputation and debated effectiveness suggests that profits are driving donkey slaughter rather than verified health benefits.

File Photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr.

Recently, a Hong Kong-based TCM doctor Vincent Li stated that ejiao as a luxury rather than a necessary medicine, is simply a ‘business opportunity’. Historically, ejiao was never mass produced or eaten ‘casually’ as a snack food. Li said, ‘People know ejiao, not because it is particularly good, but because it was heavily promoted.’ Increasingly ejiao consumption and production appears to be fuelled by economic benefit rather than medical value.

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong Government has recently announced that ejiao will be included in the next Hong Kong Materia Medica Standards project; a series that focuses on popular TCM products providing recommendations regarding safety and quality. This will mean advanced testing methods to ensure that real ejiao is used, spelling disaster for donkey populations as the industry is set to expand.

With programs like ‘Empresses in the Palace’ promoting products that threaten wildlife purely for profit, species will continue to disappear. Increasingly, donkeys are in danger of joining pangolins, rhinos, deer and many other species that are on the brink of extinction.

ADM Capital Foundation

ADM Capital Foundation is an impact-driven foundation with a focus on environmental issues. Also based in Hong Kong, it works towards resolving challenges in relation to marine biodiversity, water security, wildlife trade and forestry conservation finance.