On May 18 last year, John Nduiyu was woken up by a cock crow, as had been his tradition. He stretched, yawned and thanked God for another day. Then he strolled to the spot where he had tethered his beasts of burden, in readiness for the day's work. To his shock, the eight donkeys he had used for years were missing. A few pieces of ropes he used to tie them with were the only thing left. Nduiyu first thought the donkeys might have trespassed into the neighbour's house. He gathered his courage and began searching for them.
"I looked for them the whole day. I started with Naivasha environs before extending my search to Suswa and Narok. I, however, did not succeed," he said, the agony of losing his livelihood written in his face.
This year alone, Nduiyu has lost five donkeys. But Nduiyu is not alone. Simon Kinyua also lost six donkeys in a similar manner. Kinyua said he had just strolled around, leaving behind his donkeys grazing. When he returned, he got a rude shock. "I was hoping that they were just around. After taking close to an hour looking for them, I lost hope," he said. Matters worsened when he learnt that donkey meat formed a delicacy in countries such as China. He feared his donkeys, too, might have ended up on someone's plate.
FROM WORK TO FOOD
The donkey, commonly referred to as the beast of burden, has given man companionship for over six millennia. In all these years, it has mainly been used for work. Currently, in most developing countries like Kenya, the donkey still plays this key role in providing cheap traction power. But in recent times, there has been an upsurge in the demand for donkey meat and skin.
The government carried out a national population census in 2009 and, in that year, for the first time, animals were also counted. The results were released on August 31, 2010, and the statistics showed Kenya had a population of 1.8 million donkeys. Most of these donkeys were located in the expansive Rift Valley, Eastern and Northeastern provinces, with Lamu town being the urban centre with the highest number of working donkeys.
While for centuries, donkeys have not been seen as a candidate for man’s dinner plate, this trend seems to have changed in some parts of the world. China is currently leading in demanding donkey meat. Moreover, the donkey skin itself has proved to be the new gold of the world. The donkey has never been a food animal as such in Kenya in all recorded history, except among the nomadic community of the Turkana, who occasionally eat the donkey but mainly during the severe drought season. However, the government amended the Meat Act Cap 356, allowing the donkey to be considered a food animal alongside the horse, under a declaration based on the legal notice of 1999.
The premise was to increase food options for the citizens and allow for the government to regulate and ensure the public safety of donkey meat being slaughtered among the Turkana community. This move, however, opened a Pandora's box. The demand for donkey skin is now over a million per year. The skin is used to make ejiao, a traditional medicine made from gelatin extracted from boiled donkey hides. This has resulted in the mushrooming of donkey slaughterhouses worldwide targeting this new growing market.
In Kenya, four donkey slaughterhouses have already been opened in the last three years, and they boast a combined slaughter capacity of over 1,000 donkeys a day. Goldox Slaughter House in Mogotio, Baringo county, reported to be worth Sh300 million, began its operations in 2016. It is owned by a Chinese investor and has the capacity to slaughter 400 donkeys a day. Since its inception, the slaughterhouse has not been able to operate at full capacity due to limited donkey supply. They are reported to slaughter between 150 and 250 donkeys a day.
The abattoir has been in the media several times due to poor environmental management practices and animal welfare concerns. It was closed in 2017 for a short while due to environmental pollution by the National Environmental Management Authority. Past inspections in the facility showed animal welfare gaps in handling, which ranged from starving donkeys, severely injured donkeys not being slaughtered as a priority and poor competence by the staff in handling donkeys. One good thing noted was the consistent use of stunning, using a stun gun before slaughter.
Star Brilliant Slaughterhouse in Naivasha, Nakuru county, is said to be worth Sh200 million. The facility was opened in 2016 and has the capacity to slaughter 200 donkeys a day. The facility has in the recent past been operating grossly below capacity, with days or weeks passing without slaughter due to lack of supply. The facility is co-owned by a Kenyan and a Chinese investor. It has had major problems and at some point in 2017, it was closed by the vet department due to gross cruelty towards donkeys. It was accused of starving donkeys, keeping donkeys in filth and mixing dead, flayed donkeys with live ones in the holding areas.
Major environmental pollution also occurred, with carcasses dumped within the compound, raising questions on the suitability of the facility as a slaughterhouse for food for human consumption. The fact that dead, flayed, rotting donkeys were all over the compound suggested the skin was the driving commodity, begging the question of whether these slaughterhouses were supposed to be registered under Meat Control Act or hides and skin laws.
Silzha Slaughterhouse in Lodwar, Turkana county, was opened in 2016 and is said to have cost Sh200 million. It uses a crude electric probe to stun the donkeys. The facility has a slaughter capacity of 200-300 donkeys a day, but due to supply shortfalls, the number of donkeys slaughtered has been on the decline, with some days reporting zero slaughter.
The fourth facility is Fuhai Trading Company Slaughterhouse in Kithyoko, Machakos county. It is reported to have to cost millions of shillings to build as the newest donkey slaughterhouse in Kenya, and is probably the busiest, with a slaughter capacity of 200 donkeys a day. It has, however, consistently been unable to hit the target since its inception in mid-2018 due to limited donkey supplies. The slaughterhouse does not own a stun gun. When the government amended the Act, it thought the move would help transform lives. Nationally, 600,000 pieces of donkey skin and 400 tons of donkey meat were exported between 2016 and 2018.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS ABOUT DONKEY MEAT
The arbitrary slaughter of donkeys for meat and skin without control or resource allocation towards conservation and research is contrary to the constitution. Under the Meat control Act (local slaughterhouse) Regulations, 2012; section 3 part 1 gives power to the Director of Veterinary Services to authorise operationalisation of a slaughterhouse through a gazette notice.
In article 46, 1, c, of the constitution 2010, protection of consumers health, safety and economic rights are guaranteed. In chapter 5, part 2 article 69, 1, a, e, g, h and 2 explicitly talk of responsible utilisation of natural resources, conservation of biodiversity and control of exploitation for the sake of future generations. Under the subsequent article 70, the law allows for public legal redress against environmental damage without the need for proof of damage or injury to a person.
Under article 71, exploitation of any natural resource at the magnitude of the donkey meat and skin, trade demands that there should have been a parliamentary approval before the trade was allowed to go on.
In the 4th schedule of the Kenya constitution, part 1, section 22 and 30 apply. The government has yet to show an intention to protect the animals and also to enact the veterinary policy, which is supposed to guide the exploitation of animals. This, therefore, exposes the country to the threat of loss of its national natural resource.
In the same schedule part 2, section 1c talks of county abattoirs, thus making the proper supervision of the donkey slaughterhouses by national government hard, yet they are mainly for the export market. In part 2 section 2, e and 6 demand for good welfare services and veterinary care provided by county governments, yet the donkeys have been exposed to vast cruelty and poor vet services contrary to this aspect of the constitution.
The donkey slaughterhouses are also supposed to implement directly and fully both provisions of Codex Alimentarius, the Meat Control Act, Cap 356 and the superior Public Health Act, Cap 242, in terms of gazettement of a donkey as a food animal.
The buildings of slaughterhouses should also have some standards. A meat inspection code must also be provided. Whereas the Meat Control Act has declared donkey as a food animal and partly provides for the building standards for donkey abattoir, it does not provide a code of hygienic practices for donkey meat. Neither does it provide for environmental health measures.
The Public Health Act is overarching in matters of health of humans. It provides in section 16 that other laws comply with it and it would prevail on them in case of any conflict. The Public Health Act does declare the food animals but in section 131 prohibits unwholesome food based on the judgement of authorised officers. The Public Health Act provides rules for inspection of animals intended for human consumption and a code of hygienic practice, under Legal Notice 14 of 1956.
The Cabinet Secretary responsible for Health ought to be involved in regulating donkey meat intended for human consumption, which is within his powers as set out in section 134 of the Public Health Act.