In February this year, what looked like an endless battle between donkey owners and thieves presumably came to an end with the ban on slaughtering the animal for commercial purposes.
Donkey owners are celebrating the ongoing efforts by animal welfare organisations to push for a total ban on the slaughter of donkeys and consumption of their meat.
They are hopeful that the long nights of uncertainty about the safety of their donkeys will be consigned to memory, and that Kenya will soon see a significant increase in the number of donkeys, reversing the worrying decline in their population of recent years.
Kenya’s donkey population fell to about 1.2 million from 1.8 million in 2010, thanks in no small part to the decision in 2012 to allow their slaughter for export to the meet growing demand for its meat and hide in China.
Chief Daniel Lonkoi, a resident of Magadi in Kajiado, who owns the domestic animal, says donkey owners in the area are a relieved since the ban was effected.
“Before we could not enjoy our sleep. Thieves would regularly break into our homes and steal our donkeys for sale,” he says.
Mr Lonkoi says an increasing number of families are rearing donkeys because they rely on the animal to fetch water and transport items to the market, especially the women.
James Shukur, a village elder and donkey owner in Olposimoru, Narok County at the border of Kenya and Tanzania, says they have witnessed a big change since the ban and farmers are never worried about losing their donkeys as it was before.
Mr Shukur is also the chairman of Donkey Forum in the area.
The massive slaughter of donkeys for meat and hide had threatened the existence of the animal because of its slow breeding.
This meant that replenishing the numbers was hard, which was made worse by the fact that the abattoirs were also slaughtering female donkeys in large numbers.
“Currently we are seeing more donkeys reproducing. Therefore we hope that we can see the rate of breeding go up compared to before,” said Mr Shukur.
Cynthia Nemeyian, a resident of Olmapinu, Rombo in Kajiado, says women are the big winners in the fight against the slaughter of donkeys.
Agriculture Cabinet secretary Peter Munya banned the export of donkey products in February to save it from extinction in the country.
The ban came after numerous complaints from donkey owners and the Association of Donkey Owners in Kenya protests.
At the time, the animal welfare organisations protested that there were declining numbers of the donkeys occasioned by rampant theft in a syndicate that was designed to benefit slaughterhouse operators at the expense of the animal owners.
By last year, the slaughter rate in Kenya was nearly 380,000 annually, piling relentless pressure on donkey populations.
The Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), Brooke East Africa in collaboration with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Network of Donkey Owners (Nado) and Alliance of the Donkey Welfare Organisations in Kenya joined hands and called for a ban on the export of donkey hides.
However, the animal organisations suffered a setback after the High Court sitting in Naivasha in June lifted the ban, saying the legal notice Mr Munya had issued violated the rights of abattoir proprietors. The case is still pending in court.
The abattoirs are yet to start slaughtering donkey meat as the government had revoked their licences.
Before the ban, four operational abattoirs included Goldox Kenya Limited in Mogotio, Baringo County, Star Brilliant Abattoir in Maraigushu in Naivasha, Nakuru County, Silzha Limited in Nakwaalele, Turkana County and Fuhai Machakos Trading Company Limited, Kithyoko, Machakos County.
Currently, only the abattoir in Turkana operating, saying it slaughters the animal for the Chinese market in Kenya.
The ANAW programmes director, Dr Josiah Ojwang, however, says it is not yet time for Kenya to celebrate as the effects of the ban are yet to be felt fully.
Currently, the organisation is working with county governments to sensitise farmers to embrace donkey farming.
“With the Turkana abattoir still operational, there is still a risk of donkey owners suffering from theft,” he said.
The organisation is calling for a total change of the meat Act to exclude donkey from being a food animal in Kenya.
The Meat Control Act was amended in 2012 to classify donkeys and horses as food animals, leading to the construction of the donkey slaughterhouses.
However, the shortage of donkeys fuelled the theft of the animal to meet the surging demand by the slaughterhouses.
The demand for hides in China is primarily to feed the production lines for a traditional medicine called ejiao, which is believed to supplement lost blood, delay ageing, increase libido and treat side effects of chemotherapy.
It is also said to prevent infertility, miscarriage and menstrual irregularity.
The supply of donkey hides from mainly Africa, Asia and South America has not been meeting the demand in China, which needs around 4.8 million hides yearly for ejiao production.
Kenya proved a fertile source of these hides, given the lack of laws protecting donkeys and the lowly view of the animal by the general population — compared to other domestic animals on which Kenyans value more than donkeys.
A June 2019 report by the Kalro projected that Kenya might not have a single donkey by 2023 if slaughtering was to continue at the unabated pace.
The status of donkey slaughter in Kenya and its implication on community livelihoods showed that a total of 4,178 donkeys were stolen between 2016 and 2018.
The report also showed that the number of those slaughtered increased from 1.1 per cent of the total population in 2016 (20,768) to 15 per cent in 2018 (159,631) — totalling 301,977 in the three years.
Most of Kenya’s donkeys are found in the Rift Valley, eastern and northeastern regions, with Lamu town being the urban centre with the highest number of working donkeys.