A greeting card featuring an Abyssinian Wild Ass walking towards the viewer, and text 'Every Step You Take'

What is the origin of the domesticated donkey?

What other species do donkeys breed with, and what are the offspring called?

What are some famous donkeys in literature?

Which countries have the biggest donkey populations?

How are donkeys used for work and how they are treated around the world, today and in earlier times?

Finally, what is the danger to the future of donkeys from ejiao donkey gelatine production in China?

The Origin Of The Domesticated Donkey

The Abyssinian Wild Ass, the Anatolia donkey, the Tibetan wild ass, these are the ancestors of the domesticated donkey.

Their range is vast. It covers the deserts and savannahs in northern Africa from Morocco to Somalia. Then onwards across the Arabian Peninsula, into the Middle East. And eastwards to Central Asia.

The words ass and donkey come from different origins but they mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

The word ass comes from the Latin word asinus. The word donkey probably comes from Middle English and the word dun, from the animal’s dun brown colour. Donikie combines the dun colour with a diminutive ending – a little brown horse.

Whatever name you give it, its scientific name is Equus africanus asinus. It is a four-footed animal with long ears, a furry tail. It is in the same family as horses and zebras.

The donkey’s long ears have two functions. They help it to hear, of course, but they also help keep the animal cool with numerous small veins that act like an air conditioner.

Male asses are known as jacks and females are jennies. A jackass is simply a male ass.

And donkeys will mate with both horses and zebras.

  • A male donkey and a female horse beget a mule.
  • A female donkey and a male horse beget a hinny.
  • A donkey and a zebra beget what is variously called a zebroid, a zonkey or a zeedonk.

The striped legs on the Abyssinian wild ass makes you wonder whether in the genetic family history of the animal, there is a bit of zebra DNA.

The offspring of these crosses are almost always infertile. Despite that, breeders like mules because they are bigger and can carry greater loads for longer.

Famous donkeys in literature

Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote

In Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the nobleman Alonso Quixano reads so many medieval books of chivalry that he goes mad. He renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and sets out to do heroic deeds in the service of his country.

He employs Sancho Panza, a poor, simple farmer, to work for him as his squire. And off Don Quixote rides on his worn out horse Rocinante.

Sancho Panza rides his donkey named Dapple, otherwise know at El Rucio from the grey colour of its coat.

The animals they ride reflect the owners. Dapple the donkey is more plodding and simple, but also more practical. It also is in better condition than the worn out horse that Don Quixote rides.

At one level it is more suited to deal with the world as it is. But it is Sancho Panza who comes off worst in most of their encounters. Meanwhile Don Quixote on his horse sails on unaware of the mess he leaves behind him.

Alan Alexander Milne’s Winne The Pooh

Eeyore is the old grey donkey and friend of Winnie-the-Pooh. He is always pessimistic, gloomy, and depressed. He is unable to experience the pleasure of the moment. What is to become of Eeyore?

Donkeys at work

Donkeys are used as pack animals and for pulling ploughs. You may have seen videos of donkeys carrying loads of bricks in the brick kilns in Egypt. The donkey charity Spana describes the short, hard life of donkeys in some countries as “a life filled with the pain of carrying loads day in day out. When working animals are sick, injured or in pain, there is no rest.” 

In contrast to that, here is Arthur Mangin describing the ass in his 1869 book, The Desert World:

The domestic ass of the East differs notably from the slow, dogged, ill-used animal of European notoriety. Under a more favourable climate, and in the free life of the desert, he has preserved his tall stature, his vigour, and the haughtiness of his bearing. The wealthiest and most distinguished personages do not disdain to mount him or harness him to their carriage. He has a keen eye, a quick scent, a sure foot, a mild and resolute aspect. He accomplishes with ease from six to eight miles an hour; and, lastly—a fact worthy of notice—his life, which with us seldom exceeds fifteen years, in Asia is frequently prolonged to thirty or thirty-five. He is less subject to sickness than the horse, and he almost equals the camel in sobriety, docility, and endurance of hunger and fatigue.

How different from today, with the well-report ill treatment of donkeys in the Middle East. Compare that with the high regard with which donkeys are held in the UK.

Donkeys numbers around the world

Donkeys are important work animals across the world. They work as pack animals and as plough animals.

There are fifteen million donkeys in Africa. The majority are in a belt across North Africa – dry, desert country suited to donkeys. Five million of them are in Ethiopia, one-and-a-half million in Egypt, and a million in Nigeria.

The donkeys of Ethiopia takes us back to our Abyssinian Wild Ass. (Abyssinia is the former name for Ethiopia).

In South and Central America there are three million in Mexico and a million in Brazil.

In Asia there are four million in Pakistan, and one-and-a-half million in Iran. There are one-and-a-half million in India, and a million in Afghanistan.

The greatest number by far are in China. There were eleven million but that may have fallen because of the following:

Donkeys in danger

According to an October 2017 article in the Guardian newspaper, a medicine made from donkey skins is huge business in China. And that affects donkeys around the world.

According to industry statistics, four million donkey skins are used every year to make ejiao. It is a traditional medicine that was originally used for pain relief. Now is claimed to cure many diseases and disorders.

In the past twenty years, the number of donkeys in China has fallen from eleven million to below six million. Ejiao production is part of the story. The other part is the mass migration of rural Chinese to the cities, which has meant that fewer donkeys are needed.

But there are still not enough donkeys for ejiao production. So ejiao producers look to other countries for donkey skins. That raises the price of donkeys in, say, rural Africa and prices local people out of the market.

It’s the way of the world. A new use is made for a formerly cheap resource, and the balance in society is upset.

Perhaps Eeyore is right to be always pessimistic, gloomy, and depressed. Perhaps he is unable to experience the pleasure of the moment because he always sees the bigger picture.

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