BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
SOMETIME late last year, mourners attending a funeral at St Peter’s in Bulawayo’s Pumula suburb were astonished after realising that they had been fed donkey meat disguised as game meat.
It was later discovered that the meat was from a stolen donkey after some of the people who had consumed the meat reported stomach aches.
In Zimbabwe, donkeys have not been known to be part of the local diet but more for providing draught power in rural communities.
It is against this backdrop that a local businessman’s attempts to open an abattoir for the slaughter of donkeys early this year caused a stir in Bulawayo.
The businessman, Gareth Lumsden, had first announced in October 2017 that he had established a US$150 000 donkey abattoir in the City of Kings, courting the ire of animal welfare organisations.
A Harare butcher, who spoke to NewsDay Weekender this week, indicated that the sale of donkey meat was risky business.
Shadreck Matsetu, who runs three butcheries in Budiriro, said it was unlikely that he could consider selling donkey meat — even in the event that it is given green light — because he did not believe that donkey meat was edible and that it would find takers among his customers.
“I think it’s safer to stick to what we have been selling all along. I’ve done fairly well with beef, pork and chicken — and sometimes goat meat — but to think that I can sell donkey meat, I don’t know,” he said with a shrug.
“But I don’t think it’s something I can consider. Perhaps it’s traditional. From the time we were growing up, we never thought there could be a time in future when people would eat donkey meat.”
In 2017, when stories about the possibilities of taking donkeys to the slaughter in the country started circulating, the then Agriculture deputy minister (Livestock), Paddy Zhanda, said while he was not sure if the campaign would succeed, there was concern over the low donkey population in Zimbabwe.
“I’m not sure how the business will go because it takes longer for a donkey to grow as compared to other forms of livestock,” he said.
“Countries with a huge population of donkeys are Botswana and Namibia. In actual fact, in Namibia donkeys are left to roam in the wild. We will get to know (more) of the abattoir when it’s complete as we are the ones that will inspect it.”
The organisations that campaigned against Lumsden’s plans argued that his proposed slaughter rate of 70 donkeys a day would wipe out the country’s national donkey herd — estimated at
175 000 — in just five years.
The Department of Veterinary Services, which administers abattoir inspections and certification under the Veterinary Public Health Act and issues livestock transit and slaughter permits, indicated that no such licence was processed for a donkey abattoir in the country.
The department’s director, Josphat Nyika, issued a circular dated October 9, 2017, in which he ruled out the possibility of a donkey abattoir being licensed in the country.
“I am sure you are all aware of the anxiety, acrimony, havoc and mayhem that have been generated among the Zimbabwean public by the construction of a donkey abattoir in Bulawayo,” he said.
“You are hereby advised that the said abattoir, or any for that matter, will not be registered to operate in Zimbabwe, and that no donkey will ever be slaughtered at any abattoir.”
Traditionally donkeys have only been known as beasts of burden rather than a delicacy, although in other countries such as China, the meat is a prized protein source often served in burgers.
Research done by senior veterinarian Erick Mutizhe to evaluate stakeholder perceptions on donkey skin trade, unearthed some sticking points in the donkey meat processing business.
Mutizhe observed that the consumption of donkey meat was considered a taboo.
He said some of the donkey owners indicated unwillingness to part with their stock as that would deplete their labour source and the mules were central to their families’ livelihoods.
“The majority of donkey owners expressed willingness to sell donkeys to donkey skin markets if they exceeded the maximum number of donkeys they needed at their households,” he said.
Mutizhe concluded that donkey skin trade was risky and it was important to carry out thorough assessment to ensure that the country would not embark on a trade that may dispossess families of livelihoods emanating from donkey ownership.
International animal welfare charities The Donkey Sanctuary and Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (Spana) last year applauded government’s strong legal position against the emerging donkey meat and hide trade.
Following a one-day conference on donkey trade held in Bulawayo last year, the organisation said Lumsden’s Battlefront Investments, a meat value chain operator in a joint venture with some Chinese partners, intended to satisfy the demand for donkey skins for the production of ejiao, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Spana Zimbabwe country director Keith Dutlow told the media that donkeys played a vital role in catering for the daily livelihoods for rural communities.
“Our aim is to prevent the devastation caused by this horrific trade, which is destroying rural communities, undermining communities and leading to the brutal slaughter of a vast number of animals throughout Africa,” he said.
According to Mutizhe, the demand for donkey skins in the production of traditional Chinese medicines has resulted in donkeys being sourced from all over the world.
The demand for donkey meat saw a spike in livestock theft as equine creatures were targeted for slaughter and sale. Last year, Umguza district became a flash point with suspected livestock rustlers invading the district to steal cattle and donkeys.
Newly-resettled villagers in Maraposa, Redwood, Stella and Makondo were the main targets.
Richard Matshona, a villager from Redwood, popularly known as Mathonisa resettlement area, told NewsDay Weekender at the time that livestock rustlers were ransacking their area. They stole two cattle from one homestead and slaughtered them along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls Highway, just a few metres from the homestead.
The incident happened shortly after the arrest of a suspected donkey-meat seller who had allegedly stolen the beast, slaughtered it and sold the meat to unsuspecting residents.
In his research, Mutizhe observed that “there were possibilities of donkey welfare violations, increased donkey thefts, potential decimation of donkey numbers and reduction in the quality of livelihoods of rural people”, if the animal’s skin trade was given the green light.
He recommended that there be education for donkey owners, advocacy for legislation on their skin trade and their inclusion in national animal health programmes.
Animal rights and welfare activists contend that the world’s donkey population is likely to be decimated as millions of the beasts are slaughtered every year for their skins, according to a report by the United Kingdom-based welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary.
The practice is more widespread in South America and Asia where millions of donkeys are killed, pregnant mares, foals and sick animals stolen, transported and killed.
According to The Donkey Sanctuary’s report, Under the Skin Update, there is a high risk of anthrax and equine flu infection in the trade of donkeys, which are central to the livelihoods of 500 million people across the globe.
Donkey populations in China have reportedly collapsed by 76% since 1992. Since 2007 donkey populations have declined by 28% in Brazil, by 37% in Botswana and by 53% in Kyrgyzstan.
Africa has not been spared, with the commercial trade of donkeys rife in Kenya and Ghana.
More than 60 000 donkeys died in West Africa this year along live skin trade routes, which the World Organisation for Animal Health had said are almost certainly linked to the
These deaths demonstrate the potentially high risk of contagious diseases being spread as a result of the skin trade. Donkey skins from this area are being exported untreated direct to China.