Ejiao Trade Pushes Donkeys to Extinction

By Amy Hadden Marsh

The global trade of donkey skins is decimating the world’s population of these sensitive, sentient equids. The Brooke Foundation, advocating for working equids across the globe, reports that the international donkey hide industry slaughters an estimated 4.8 million donkeys per year to help supply China’s demand for ejiao, a gelatin alleged to have healing and anti-aging properties. To meet market demands, China needs 8–10 million donkey hides per year for cosmetic and medicinal purposes but domestic herds supply only 1.8 million. China’s demand for donkey skins has led to the slaughter of donkeys across the globe.

Since 2015, nations in the global south, including Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, and Brazil (in 2022) have banned donkey exports to China. In February 2020, Kenya announced a ban on donkey slaughterhouses but rescinded it five months later. The United States is working on legislation that would prohibit this cruel and dangerous trade. 

What’s the deal with donkey hides?

Photo by Tarra Arrowood

Rescued wild burros at Montgomery Creek Ranch. Tara Arrowood

Ejiao (uh-JEE-ow) is a gelatin made from boiled donkey hides, traditionally used by the Chinese as a blood tonic and for anti-aging treatments due to its 80% collagen content. A popular edible, E’jiao Gao (EJG), adds walnuts, black sesame seeds, and rice wine to make a cake or bar. It purports to reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease, and to nourish the liver and balance the nerves. Ejiao is also ingested in dried gelatin forms.

About 2,000 years ago, when ejiao use reportedly began, only the Chinese ruling elite could afford to use it. In the late 20th century, however, with the rise of the Chinese middle class, disposable income increased. Millions of people could now afford to purchase ejiao, which has driven increased demand for what used to be a luxury. But at what cost? Donkeys have declined by 76% in China since the 1990s and are in danger of extinction in other countries.

Livelihood vs Luxury

A 2019 report from The Donkey Sanctuary, based in the UK, stated that officials in Nigeria and Kenya feared that donkeys would go extinct by 2022 if something wasn’t done to stop the skin trade. But, the needs of those two countries, and their concerns about extinction, illustrate the leading factors driving the dichotomy within the donkey skin trade. 

Rural families and businesses in many nations in the global south rely on donkeys for transportation and work. The animals carry children to school and adults to the market. Donkeys carry wood and water, essential for households without running water or energy for heat and cooking. Often, these valuable donkeys are poached or stolen, devastating families. For these reasons, Nigeria, which has declared the donkey an endangered species, and other nations have banned donkey exports to China. 

In Kenya, however, the government has allowed Chinese investment in Kenyan slaughterhouses due to the lucrative nature of the skin trade. But, citizens complain that their donkeys are stolen and sold to the abattoirs. Between April 2016 and December 2018, more than 300,000 donkeys were slaughtered in four export slaughterhouses in Kenya. The Brook Foundation also reports that the death rate of donkeys due to the skin trade is five times that of the birth rate, and projects that donkeys in Kenya could go extinct by 2023. 

The price for donkey hides has skyrocketed due to increased Chinese demand and a marked decrease in the global supply. Hides that sold for $US460 in 2018 now go for more than $1,000. The theft of donkeys to supply the skin trade also threatens local businesses, such as farms and dairies in South Africa, that make soap and creams from donkey milk.

As of 2018, Hong Kong was the No.1 donkey skin importer worth $US47 million, followed by Japan at $13 million. The U.S. was in third place at $12 million. Australia and Canada’s donkey skin imports enlarged the nations’ coffers by $4 million and $2.8 million respectively.

The donkey skin trade is also a portal to the illegal wildlife trade. Scientists are increasingly concerned that the largely unregulated skin trade is a biosecurity threat.

Are wild burros in the U.S. at risk? 


There are concerns that American burros are being funneled into the ejiao trade. There is no system in place to document whether the burros who are transported to slaughterhouses across the border are being killed for the purpose of ejiao. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. 

A noticeable increase in the number of burros ending up in kill pens and auctions that are frequented by kill buyers (thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s Adoption Incentive Program), raises questions about the ultimate outcome for these animals.  

Mexico is a top exporter of donkey skins to China and Vietnam, but whether those donkeys are domestic or from other countries is unknown. According to The Donkey Sanctuary, neither Canada nor the U.S. export donkey skins directly. 

The Ejiao Act

The good news? The U.S. is on its way to prohibiting the sale or transport of donkey skin ejiao, thanks to U.S. Representative Don Beyer (D-VA-8). Congressman Beyer introduced H.R. 5203, aka The Ejiao Act, in September 2021. The bill would amend Section 301 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by prohibiting the “knowing sale or transport of ejiao made using donkey skin, or products containing ejiao made using donkey skin, in interstate or foreign commerce.” 

The bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. AWHC urges all members to help move it forward before the 117th Congress comes to a close. The United States is the third-largest importer of ejiao, with $12 million in imports each year. This bill—endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign, Brooke USA Foundation, Animal Welfare Institute, and American Association of Equine Practitioners—would address the nation’s role in the global donkey skin trade. Documentation has shown that these animals are beaten, abused, and often killed with sledgehammers. As the worldwide donkey population shrinks toward extinction due to a demand for a luxury item, could our beloved burros be next? 

Please call or write to your U.S. Representative and ask them to become a cosponsor of H.R. 5203, The Ejaio Act. 

Amy Hadden Marsh, writer and editor, comes to AWHC from an award-winning background in journalism. Amy spent 15 years as public affairs show host, reporter, and news director for KDNK Community Radio in Carbondale, CO, winning several Edward R. Murrow and Colorado Broadcasters Association awards along the way. She has won awards for her print work from the Colorado Press Association. She has also been a freelance journalist since 1990, publishing in national magazines.