Johannesburg - The North West government wants to export pharmaceutical products made out of gelatin found in donkey skin.
The department plans to breed and slaughter the animals locally and says the project is aimed at boosting rural, township and small town business people across the province.
Director general at the provincial department of agriculture Patrick Leteane told News24 on Monday that the idea to pursue trade in donkey products as a potential source of income for farmers came about in 2016 when Premier Supra Mahumapelo was in China on an official visit and came across a range of pharmaceutical products made out of gelatin found in donkey skins.
The gelatin is believed to be a key ingredient in China's ejiao (donkey skin) industry, which produces tablets, tonics and sweet syrup. The donkey skins are apparently soaked and stewed to produce the substance.
Leteane said the aim of the project was to organise and train farmers to breed the type of donkey needed for these products.
"So the idea is to organise the farmers, in terms of capacity building to ensure that they are trained. We will be getting some of the Chinese people to come to talk to issues of production, breeding techniques, feeding and all those things that go with comprehensive picture of what goes into production," Leteane said.
Spike in demand
Until then, the province will be working on gathering more information about the industry and putting together strategies to ensure that farmers can get the project off the ground.
"The next step is to go on a full-scale capacity building and information session on issues related to how to care for donkeys and issues of compliance, because there are a number of areas that you need to comply with.
"We cannot just export immediately. There are a whole lot of things we need to ensure that we comply with in terms of different laws and regulations, and food safety matters and all those matters."
Recent reports have highlighted a sudden spike in the demand from China for donkey hides.
In the Mail & Guardian, it was revealed that an alleged Chinese syndicate was illegally slaughtering donkeys and had stocked more than 5 000 hides inside a shack and a metal container in Benoni.
Police confiscated the skins during a raid. People who work in the area told the publication that "the skins belong to the Chinese" and that a truck often came to collect the skins, which were estimated to be worth up to R7 000 each.
No arrests were made during the bust.
Farm slaughters lead to arrests
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) has harshly criticised the manner in which donkeys across the country are being targeted.
In a statement released on Monday, NSPCA farm animal protection unit inspector Mpho Mokoena said the organisation had recently discovered that hundreds of donkeys were being illegally and brutally slaughtered on a farm in Olifantshoek, in the Northern Cape.
Mokoena said two men had been arrested and charged with violating the Animals Protection Act and the Meat Safety Act.
Penny Ward, southern Africa co-ordinator of animal charity organisation World Horse Welfare, said slaughtering animals was not illegal but certain standards had to be met.
"Slaughtering in an official abattoir where everything is done according to rules and regulations and it is humane and is done properly by trained people, that is one issue.
"Doing it in a backyard is another issue," she said.
She said the department needed to thoroughly assess whether breeding donkeys for purposes of using their skins was a viable business model because donkeys were known to have one of the longest gestation periods of all animals, which was between 12 and 14 months.
And even with that being considered, donkeys usually gave birth to one foal at a time. Having twins was a possibility, but it was not as common, she said.
“I don't know if it's a viable business in the North West and would really urge the province to be very careful about this and get proper advice from animal welfare practitioners about a breeding programme and how viable it is.”
"Because it's not just 'okay, we can get farmers to breed donkeys'. It doesn't work like that. And I am worried that it is going to turn into some kind of process whereby the welfare of the animal is not respected," said Ward.
Ward said the problem was not new and it was not only in South Africa.
About two years ago she heard from colleagues in Kenya about similar complaints of donkeys being stolen and being stripped of their skins in backyard abattoirs.
Since then, she has heard similar stories coming out of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
Interestingly, the number of skins being collected has risen dramatically from about 40 to 50 in the past, to thousands more recently, she said.
"It is increasing rapidly, but I would say over the last two years it started becoming more commonly spoken about in Africa. It is across Africa."
Both Niger and Burkina Faso have implemented bans on the exporting of donkey skins in an attempt to stem the population from being decimated, she said.