Wildlife & Biodiversity

Burdened beast: India’s donkeys are disappearing; here is why

A fall in demand as a beast of burden, and illegal meat and skin trade have caused a critical decline in donkey numbers

By Shagun
Published: Monday 12 December 2022
Mohammad Iqbal, a resident of Shahdara in Delhi, depends on his donkey to earn enough for his family of five (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)
Mohammad Iqbal, a resident of Shahdara in Delhi, depends on his donkey to earn enough for his family of five (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary) Mohammad Iqbal, a resident of Shahdara in Delhi, depends on his donkey to earn enough for his family of five (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

Every evening, Mohammad Iqbal takes his donkey to the Old Delhi railway station to deploy the animal for moving gravel and sand used in railway track repairs. On some days, Iqbal, a resident of Shahdara district in the national capital, takes his donkey to construction sites for similar work.

“I earn Rs 600 for working six hours at my will, more than what I would earn from a full day of manual labour or any other job,” he said, adding that the donkey is not just a stead. His family of five depends on this income for survival.

Like Iqbal, several smallholders and rural communities across India depend on donkeys The animal finds use in places untouched by mechanisation, like brick kilns, where its small size helps it move quickly through narrow entrances.

Read As told to Gujarat Vidhan Sabha: State’s donkeys, camels in peril

A 2013 survey by the Indian unit of Brooke, a UK-based international non-profit that works on the use and protection of horses, mules and donkeys, finds that of the total annual income earned by equine-owning families working in 50 brick kilns in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh, 80 per cent came from their animals’ transport of bricks. For 47 of the 200 equine owners surveyed, the animals were the only source of income.

Similarly, dairy suppliers in Gujarat use donkeys to carry milk across rough terrain, while potters in Lucknow use them to transport clay. The equine also serves as a draught animal in farms.

“Donkeys have a financial impact on households and the economy,” said Habibur Rahman, regional representative for South Asia at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi.

Rapid disappearance

Estimating the economic value of donkeys is not as simple as with other livestock animals, as there is a lack of evidence on their socio-economic and cultural benefits.

Livestock policies have largely overlooked these animals and excluded communities that rear them from availing any incentives or subsidies other livestock farmers may receive.

Donkeys are not part of the income-generating milk, meat and fibre production systems in livestock farming. Slaughter of donkeys and trade of their meat and hide is illegal in India, says Gopal R Surabathula, an activist with Animal Rescue Organisation, Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh.

Moreover, with more mechanisation across sectors, donkeys now find little use as load-carrying animals. The subsequent reduction in demand reflects in the huge decline in their population. According to the “20th Livestock Census” released in 2019, India has 0.12 million donkeys — 62 per cent lower than the 0.32 million recorded in 2012.

Other equines — mules, horses and ponies — also saw a decrease in numbers, while the populations of cattle, buffaloes, sheep and goats rose in 2012-19.

The rate of decline in the donkey population is also increasing exponentially.

In 1992, the first year for which data is publicly available with the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying under the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, the donkey population was 0.96 million.

This decreased 8 per cent in the 1997 census, 26 per cent in 2003, 32 per cent in 2007 and 73 per cent in 2012.

ILRI is conducting a scoping study to identify the usage patterns of donkeys and the reasons for their decline.

Preliminary findings, said Rahman, show that mechanisation, communities moving to other occupations due to better education, lack of government support or policy and increase in the cost of maintaining the animal are contributing factors.

Experience on the ground shows this as well. Mohammad Ilyas, a resident of Kabir Nagar, tucked in the narrow bylanes of Shahdara, had five donkeys until 2012 he used to carry heavy loads.

After small trollies became common, he and other residents found little need for the animal. Ilyas points out that Kabir Nagar was once known as Gadhapuri as almost every family owned two to four donkeys.

“Now, one can see mules and a few horses, but no donkeys,” said Ilyas. He now works as a manual labourer.

Underground trade

Another reason for the decline in donkey population may be the significant demand for its meat. Although trade is illegal, there is rampant smuggling both inside the country and abroad.

Donkey meat is consumed in southern states, particularly Andhra Pradesh and parts of Telangana, where people believe it can ease back pain and asthma and increase virility in men.

The practice originated around 40 years ago in Stuartpuram town in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district, which was a hub for thieves, says Surabathula.

“Dacoits and thieves believed that consuming donkey meat and drinking its blood would make them strong,” he said. This belief spread to other districts such as Guntur, Eluru, Krishna and Bapatla and to regions now in Telangana.

In 2017, responding to a petition Surabathula filed against donkey slaughtering, the Andhra Pradesh high court banned the display, sale and consumption of the meat.

“Before this order, donkeys were slaughtered in the open; now, it is done in secret,” said Surbathula. "Fewer people consume the blood but use it to feed catfish, whose diet consists of animal meat and blood,” he added.

A similar illegal market exists for donkey hide, but this is mainly for exports to China. In traditional Chinese medicine, boiling donkey skin produces a gelatin called ejiao, which can be consumed or mixed with cosmetic products to treat conditions such as insomnia, dry cough and poor blood circulation.

In a 2019 study, Donkey Sanctuary India, which works for the welfare of the animal, notes that 4-10 million donkeys are likely slaughtered every year to fulfil demand for the skin in China.

As the country’s donkey population is shrinking — from 11 million in 1992 to 2.6 million in 2019 — it has turned to other nations.

“China first started sourcing from Africa and then expanded to other lower- and middle-income countries, including India,” said Priya Pandey, senior programme leader for external affairs at Brooke India.

A study by the non-profit in 2021 records illegal export of live donkeys, hide and meat from states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

Opportunity for use

The abysmal state of donkeys in the country has not gone unnoticed — the government is considering measures to reverse the population decline. On November 3, officials from ILRI, the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) and several non-profits met to discuss revival of donkeys and mules.

Bhupender Nath Tripathi, deputy director general (animal sciences), ICAR, proposed a national policy that would arrest the decline in numbers, facilitate breeding, improve healthcare and explore use.

There was an emphasis on the use of donkey milk. Trilochan Mohapatra, president, NAAS, had highlighted that creating awareness of the health benefits of donkey milk will protect the welfare of the farmers dependent on the animals.

“Donkey milk is nutritious and has less fat content compared to bovine milk. But there is not much awareness and market for it,” Rahman told Down To Earth (DTE).

Some people, such as the Maldhari community of Gujarat that rears Halari donkeys (a breed native to the state), also consume their milk to treat health ailments, added DK Sadana, former head of genetic animal resources at ICAR-National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources in Karnal, Haryana.

Donkey milk is currently sold informally for around Rs 2,000-5,000 a litre, said Yash Pal, director of ICAR-National Research Centre on Equines (NRCE) in Hisar, Haryana. However, donkeys are known to have low yield of milk, about 200 ml to 1.5 litre a day.

ICAR-NRCE is studying the properties of the milk and working on improving the yield. It has established a dairy with 30 Halari donkeys and made health drinks for research.

The institute has applied for certification with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India allowing consumption of the products, Pal told DTE. The institute has held training sessions over the past two years for entrepreneurs interested in rearing donkeys. Most participants were from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

There are also start-ups like Organiko in Delhi and Aadvik Foods in Gujarat that are offering donkey milk products. Pooja Kaul, founder of Organiko, which makes soap using donkey milk, said the startup works with 34 donkey-rearing families in the National Capital Region and Hapur and Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.

Kaul has also collaborated with communities in Ladakh to open up a donkey conservation park, where around 190 stray or abandoned donkeys are reared.

“This is not a shelter home for donkeys. Ladakh has a history of rearing donkeys but now the animal has lost its use. In this park, the local community rears donkeys and we buy milk from them. We also promote tourism to help people get familiar with donkeys,” she said.

There is also a need to explore the load-carrying capacity of donkeys, the primary use of breeds found in India. Rapid mechanisation in agriculture and construction should be balanced with use of donkeys.

“ICAR institutes conduct research, but we have suggested to the government that a wing for dedicated focus to donkeys should be set up under the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. People should also be able to get loans easily for donkey-rearing, like they do for other livestock,” said Rahman.

Donkey breeds found in India are primarily used to carry heavy loads
Breed Native region; characteristics Use
  Kachchhi   Kutch region of Gujarat; grey, white, brown or black in colour For weed removal in farms and as
pack animal during pastoralist migration. It can carry 80-100 kg and pull
200-300 kg on carts.
  Halari   Saurashtra region of Gujarat; white in colour, docile temperament As pack animal during pastoralist migration and to pull carts. It can walk around 30-40 km in a day
  Sindhi   Barmer and Jaisalmer districts of Rajasthan; brown in colour As pack animal to transport water, soil, earthenware, construction  material, fodder and to pull carts and for ploughing by small and marginal farmers.They can carry 1,000-1,500 kg.
  Spiti   Cold desert areas of Himachal Pradesh; dark brown, brown or black in colour For immediate transport of highly perishable cash crops and fruits, food grains and other items to far flung areas; to fetch wood, logs and other minor forest produce; and to bring dung or manure from pastures to villages or fields.
Source: Indian Council of Agricultural Research-National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources

This was first published in the 1-15 December print edition of Down To Earth

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