Kenyan water trader Bernard Irungu speaks about how donkeys have been cructal in his water business on the outskirts of Naivasha town, northwest of Nairobi. They have helped him pay rent, school fees, and buy food. All that changed when his donkeys started disappearing three years ago.
"One morning two donkeys I used to work with went missing. A month later I bought two more donkeys and after a year, they also disappeared,” says Irungu.
He bought more donkeys from his savings in order to be able to continue his business.
"These ones disappeared completely. I even didn’t find their remains,” he says. He was so worried about his remaining donkeys, his family slept outside to protect them.
Another Kenyan water trader, Joseph Thendu, speaks about his love for his donkeys. They have also been instrumental in his water business in nearby Mirera village, outside of Naivasha town. His donkeys started disappearing three years ago, too.
After losing eight donkeys in three years, he’s at a loss, and cannot restart his business without them.
“In the past, when donkeys were stolen, if you went around various places, you could find them loitering around streets and villages,” he says.
Both water traders say the rise of donkey abattoirs in Kenya has changed their lives.
The Kenya Meat Act of 1999 lists donkeys as one of the animals that can be processed for meat, giving abattoir owners a legal environment in which to operate.
Before the introduction of abattoirs, donkeys were a regular feature in towns, many walking around free. Reared to be used for work in poor rural communities, donkeys were a mainstay of the population.
A number of Chinese businesspeople opened abattoirs in Kenya because donkey-skin-based products are in high demand in the Chinese market, according to Raphael Ngome, supervisor at the Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals in Naivasha sub county.
“After the introduction of abattoirs, the number of donkeys went down and also theft among donkey owners and users in these towns escalated,” Ngome tells Africa Calling.
He said that donkeys had been stolen because their hides are used to make beauty potions.
“The main product we have heard is the donkey skin which is used to make cosmetics … and there’s also another Chinese product called Ejao,” he says.
Residents told Africa Calling that Chinese abattoir owners originally told them that they would take only injured and old donkeys for processing, but when there were none to be found, they started buying healthy, younger donkeys.
Water vendor Thendu says that donkeys started disappearing when the local abattoir opened.
"Personally, I have lost eight donkeys in total, I remember losing six of them in one day and that brought me down completely," he adds.
"When my neighbour’s donkeys were stolen I followed up and found them at the slaughterhouse. That means they were stolen and sold at the abattoir," adds Thendu.
Within four years, Kenya had lost an estimated 700,000 donkeys, according to the most recent figures.
Communities are grappling with increased incidents of donkey theft and high prices when trying to replace stolen donkeys, says Dr Raphael Kinoti, a director at Brooke East Africa, an organisation which deals with donkey and zebra welfare.
“When the abattoirs came and started taking in donkeys for slaughter, within three months there was a strain in terms of numbers of donkeys because then the source was already depleted,” says Kinoti.
Donkeys ferry water from one place to another, and they are valuable for their owners, but the rise in abattoirs was fueling theft and illegal slaughter of these beasts of burden, says Kinoti.
A future with donkeys?
When Kenyan donkey owners refused to sell their animals to the abattoirs, Kinoti says donkey rustlers stole donkeys in neighbouring countries and brought them to Kenya.
In 2020, the Kenyan agricultural ministry shut down the abattoirs after an outcry from communities and animal welfare organisations. The four slaughterhouses operated in Baringo, Machakos, Nakuru, and Turkana counties, killing up to 1,260 donkeys per day.
Africa Calling approached a number of abattoir operators, who declined to be interviewed.
“That’s where we are for now, though the Chinese traders are also really pushing to reopen the slaughterhouses and continue the slaughter of donkeys,” says Kinoti.
This story was originally a report for the podcast Africa Calling.