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Donkeys and Ejiao

Donkeys and ejiao illustrated with a greeting card featuring an Abyssinian Wild Ass walking towards the viewer, and text 'Every Step You Take'

Donkeys and ejiao, what is the connection? In fact, what is ejiao?

Let’s back up a bit and begin with the history of donkeys and where they come from.

There are three ancestors of the domesticated donkey. These are the Abyssinian Wild Ass, the Anatolia donkey, and the Tibetan wild ass.

Their range is vast. It stretch from the deserts and savannahs of North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. Beyond that it stretches into the Middle East and beyond to Central Asia.

The words ass and donkey come from different origins. However, whichever word is used, they mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

The word ass comes from the Latin word asinus. In contrast, 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 help it to hear. Moreover, they also help keep the animal cool because they have numerous small veins that act like an air conditioner.

Species Donkeys Breed With

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

In Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the nobleman Alonso Quixano reads so many medieval books of chivalry that he goes mad. Because of that 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 Dapple and its rider are 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.

You may be surprised at which countries have the biggest donkey populations.

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 and Ejiao

And now we can get to the bad news, which is that four million donkey skins are used every year to make ejiao.

Gelatine is a natural protein made from the collagen in animals. And ejiao is the traditional Chinese medicine made from the gelatine in boiled donkey skins.

What’s more, while ejiao was originally used for pain relief, nowadays it is used for many diseases and disorders it claims to cure.

Therefore, ejiao is big business in China, and getting bigger all the time. And that affects donkeys in China around the world.

The result is that in the past twenty years, the number of donkeys in China has fallen from eleven million to below six million. And ejiao production is only part of the story in China. The other part is the mass migration of rural Chinese to the cities. The result has been that fewer donkeys are bred for use in agriculture.

But there are still not enough donkeys for ejiao production. So ejiao producers have looked to other countries, particularly Africa, for donkey skins. That has raised the price of donkeys in Africa and local people are priced out of the market.

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.

Update March 2020

The Minister Of Agriculture in Kenya announced a ban on the slaughter and export of donkey meat and skins. The ban was imposed because of the fall in numbers and the increase in price of donkeys. More than 600,000 donkeys have been slaughtered in Kenya since 2012, reducing the population to 1.2 million animals. Donkey poaching has become big business. The price increase has meant that those whose donkeys have been poached cannot afford to replace them.

Wild Ass Greeting Card

The image at the top of this article is of one of our greeting cards. An Abyssinian Wild Ass walking towards the viewer, and text ‘Every Step You Take’. Click here for the greeting card or click the photo and it will take you straight to the product page.

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