The world’s donkey population could be slashed in half over the next five years, as millions are slaughtered annually for their skin, a new study has found.
The animals are facing population collapse across countries across the world, with traders exporting their hide for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
An estimated 4.8million donkey hides are needed each year to satisfy the growing popularity of a medicine known as ejiao, for which animal skin gelatine is a key ingredient.
Half the world’s donkey population of 44 million could be wiped out in the next five years, if supply continues to meet current demand, experts warn.
The statistics were published by animal welfare charity the Donkey Sanctuary, which is calling for an urgant end to the largely unregulated global trade in donkey skins.
"Never before have donkeys faced this level of threat," the charity's CEO Mike Baker said.
"These dependable, hard working, sentient animals experience appalling suffering as a result of the activities of skin traders across the world.
“They are often transported long distances, without food,water or rest and they can be held for days in yards without shelter, before being slaughtered in often brutal conditions.”
Donkey populations in China have collapsed by 76 per cent since 1992 owing to the rise in eijiao use, according to the report.
Believed to improve blood circulation, the medicine is used to treat people with anaemia, low blood cell counts or reproductive problems.
With demand outweighing supply in China, traders, mainly in Africa, Asia and South America, are exporting additional skins to the country for use in the subtance’s production.
Demand for skins is so high that pregnant mares and young foals, as well as sick and injured donkeys, are indiscriminately caught and transported for the trade, according to the study’s findings.
They also reveal that tens of thousands of donkeys, many of whom are stolen, are rounded up to endure long journeys to slaughterhouses on crowded trucks, with an estimated 20 per cent of animals dying en route.
Mr Baker said: “This is suffering on an enormous and unacceptable scale. Urgent action needs to be taken.”
The Donkey Sanctuary is calling for the ejiao industry to cut ties with the global skin trade.
It is pushing for a move towards more sustainable sources of raw materials, such as the use of artificially grown donkey-derived collagen.
The charity is also calling on the Chinese Government to suspends the import of donkeys and their products until both can be proven to be disease free, humane, sustainable and safe.
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) in the UK said it strongly condemned the practice and believed it was unethical and unnecessary in modern Chinese medicine.
In the UK it is illegal for herbal practitioners to prescribe animal products.
The RCHM advocates ethical plant-based alternatives or the use of beef, pork or chicken gelatine as a dietary food supplement instead.